Hyperbaric oxygen therapy can help
Hyperbaric oxygen chambers have been around for centuries and have been used in hospital settings to heal patients since the mid-1800s. While they may not be a household name like x-ray machines or MRIs, you may have heard of them being used to treat SCUBA divers suffering from decompression sickness, also known as the bends. However, they also have another therapeutic use that likely hits much closer to home: helping diabetic patients treat stubborn wounds that just won’t seem to heal on their own.
The treatment is called hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT).
“Diabetes causes a range of problems in many different systems of the body,” explained Dr. Marcus Riedhammer, Geisinger wound care specialist. “It can also interfere with the body’s ability to heal wounds, especially on the feet. Fortunately, hyperbaric oxygen therapy may be able to help.”
Healing wounds efficiently requires oxygens
When someone has diabetes, their blood sugar levels are too high because their body is not producing an adequate amount of insulin, or is not responding correctly to insulin that has been produced.
This elevated blood sugar level can cause arteries to stiffen and blood vessels to narrow, which impairs blood circulation. When blood is not circulating throughout the body efficiently, cells don’t get the oxygen and nutrients they need to perform all of their normal functions, including healing wounds.
“Additionally, people with diabetes frequently suffer from diabetic neuropathy, a condition that damages nerves and reduces sensation,” said Dr. Riedhammer. “When this happens, a person may not feel a wound developing, getting worse or failing to heal.”
Increasing the amount of oxygen circulating throughout the body with hyperbaric oxygen therapy may help with wound healing.
How HBOT works
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy involves breathing pure oxygen in an environment that increases the air pressure by as much as two to three times what would normally be experienced at sea level. In this way, the lungs can process more oxygen than they would be able to under normal, everyday conditions.
“The key to hyperbaric oxygen therapy is flooding your body with more oxygen than it normally gets,” said Dr. Riedhammer. “For people with diabetes, this can provide the extra boost they need to help speed up wound healing.”
During hyperbaric oxygen therapy, patients lie on a table inside a clear plastic tube. The air pressure inside the tube is increased and pure oxygen fills the tube. All the patient has to do is breathe! Typical therapy sessions last for about two hours.
The side effects of hyperbaric oxygen therapy are usually minimal. Patients may feel slight pressure in their ears, similar to the feeling of taking off in an airplane, which normally goes away with yawning. Afterward patients may be a little tired, but can usually return to normal activities right away.
To be effective, hyperbaric oxygen therapy may require multiple sessions — sometimes as many as 40 — to promote the healing of stubborn wounds related to diabetes.
“In addition to standard wound care, offloading, maintaining a healthy diet and taking prescribed medications, hyperbaric oxygen therapy can help with wound healing,” said Dr. Riedhammer.
If you have diabetes and have a wound that won’t heal, talk to your doctor to determine if hyperbaric oxygen therapy may be right for you.
Dr. Marcus Riedhammer, MD, is a Geisinger wound care specialist. To schedule an appointment with Dr. Riedhammer or another wound care specialist, please call 800-275-6401 or visit Geisinger.org.