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How does hyperbaric oxygen therapy work?

The science behind how hyperbaric oxygen works begins with how we breathe and absorb oxygen.

We normally breathe at a our acclimated atmospheric pressure (which simply means the weight of the column of the atmosphere above us extending upwards). This in part, depends on where we live, as those who live in higher altitudes will experience lower atmospheric pressure than those closer to or at sea level. This level of pressure plays a role in how much oxygen is available through both the pressure being exerted on the body and the spacing of oxygen molecules in relation to each other. 

Typically as one gets closer to sea level, the amount of oxygen absorbed increases, due to the density of oxygen molecules as well as the greater pressure exerted on those molecules. 

Under normal conditions, we breathe about 21% oxygen and about 78% nitrogen. Our blood takes up the oxygen we breathe via the ability of the lungs to oxygenate the blood, in which the hemoglobin bind with the oxygen and carry it to the heart which in turn pumps it throughout the body. This is vital to all cells in the body. Normally, we can only absorb as much oxygen as the hemoglobin in our blood have the capacity to bind with at a given time.

The mechanism of hyperbaric oxygen begins with the use of 100% pure oxygen that is made available to the patient. The limits of the body's ability to absorb oxygen to the capacity of the hemoglobin is overcome through a principal called Henry's Law. This begins with the patient entering a chamber made of very strong material (typically metal or glass) which can withstand a high level of internal air pressure. Air is is pumped into the chamber, reaching levels of pressure that can only be experienced under water, which is why a hyperbaric session is often referred to as a "dive". Of course no water is actually used in this process.  Following, the pressure being gradually increased to the prescribed level, the patient begins to breathe the pure oxygen through a breathing tube or mask. 

Through what is known as Henry's Law - oxygen molecules become much smaller when compressed by the pressure in the chamber, and thereby able to permeate the blood  - and no longer dependent on the hemoglobin alone to deliver oxygen to the tissues. According to an article entitled Hyperbaric Physics "Henry’s Law refers to the fact that the amount of gas that will dissolve in a liquid is directly proportional to the partial pressure of that gas above the liquid. An increase in ambient pressure (and thus partial pressure) results in more gas dissolving into the liquid portion of blood and tissues"  Hyperbaric Physics Mark W. Jones; Kaighley Brett; Nathaniel Han; H Alan Wyatt NIH September 28 2021.

In plain English, this means that the oxygen molecules are 

Henry's law is responsible for something we are more familiar with - a carbonated beverage. Under pressurized conditions, the carbon dioxide molecules are reduced in size and permeate the liquid in the beverage. As you open it, the gas in the liquid escapes as the pressure in the container is disrupted. 

.This is the phenomenon responsible for flooding the body with oxygen which then is able to benefit the tissue that have otherwise been limited to the maximum amount of oxygen carried by the hemoglobin under normal circumstances. Notably, in addition to the benefit to areas of the body to which oxygen may have otherwise been restricted - hyperbaric oxygen if administered at the right pressure, with strategically timed air breaks, can result in the formation of new blood vessels through angiogenisis and stem cell proliferation which can mean remarkable improvements in healing for patients suffering from a number of ailments. This is a very important facet of of why we use this treatment method.


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