What is hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT)?

Updated: Nov 16, 2020
  • Author: Emi Latham, MD, FACEP, FAAEM, UHM; Chief Editor: Zab Mosenifar, MD, FACP, FCCP  more...
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Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) is breathing 100% oxygen while under increased atmospheric pressure. HBOT is a treatment that can be traced back to the 1600s. The first well-known chamber was built and run by a British clergyman named Henshaw. He built a structure called the domicilium that was used to treat a multitude of diseases. [1] The chamber was pressurized with air or unpressurized using bellows. The idea of treating patients under increased pressure was continued by the French surgeon Fontaine, who built a pressurized, mobile operating room in 1879. [2] Dr. Orville Cunningham, a professor of anesthesia, ran what was known as the "Steel Ball Hospital." The structure, erected in 1928, was 6 stories high and 64 feet in diameter. The hospital could reach 3 atmospheres of pressure. [2] The hospital was closed in 1930 because of the lack of scientific evidence indicating that such treatment alleviated disease. It was deconstructed during World War II for scrap.

The military continued work with hyperbaric oxygen. The work of Paul Bert, who demonstrated the toxic effects of oxygen (producing generalized seizures), as well as the work of J. Lorrain-Smith, who demonstrated pulmonary oxygen toxicity, were used with Navy divers. Exposure times to oxygen at different depths of water (and, hence, different levels of pressure) were quantified and tested based on time to convulsions. [2]

The United States may have an inadequate number of HBOT treatment facilities. Of the 361 chambers identified nationwide, only 43 were equipped to handle high-acuity patients. HBOT is instrumental in treating decompression sickness, arterial gas embolisms, and acute carbon monoxide poisoning. [3]

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