Normal wounds often heal quickly on their own. However, the healing process can be more complicated in certain compromised wounds—like those in patients who have diabetes, trauma or radiation therapy for cancer. Damaged small blood vessels or capillaries can cause local tissue oxygen starvation, which stalls the body’s healing process.
Fortunately, there’s a way to help healing. Inside a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, like the one at Swedish Covenant Hospital, a patient breathes 100 percent pure oxygen at two to three times sea level pressure. This raises oxygen levels in the blood 15 times higher than normal and diffuses more oxygen into the wound to stimulate the production of collagen and the growth of new capillaries, explains Claude Zanetti, MD, board certified in internal medicine, pulmonary disease, critical care and hyperbaric medicine at Swedish Covenant. The treatment also promotes bone, soft tissue and skin growth to complete healing.
Maintaining proper oxygen levels for healing is a delicate job. “If we give too much [oxygen at] too high pressures for too long, we see side effects like seizures or lung damage,” Zanetti says. “Too little; it won’t have an effect.” Generally 20 to 30 treatments are required, which are given once a day for two hours.
Originally published in the Fall 2016 print edition
Erin O’Donnell is a freelance health and science writer, parent, and graduate of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. Walks by Lake Michigan make her happy.