Hyperbaric therapy helping people to heal

Sat, Aug 17, 2002

Standard Examiner correspondent

LAYTON -- Inhale . . . Exhale . . . Get well.

The woman lay quietly on her back inside the acrylic tube, watching television while she breathed a pressurized atmosphere of pure oxygen.

"It"s cool," said Jill Ferguson, after she emerged. "You go in there, watch a video and have a good time. It"s like going to the movies."

Ferguson, of Ogden, is a patient at Utah Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy, the only free-standing hyperbaric center in Utah.

LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City and Lakeview Hospital in Bountiful each have their own hyperbaric centers, but Utah Hyperbaric is not affiliated with any one hospital. It is one of 1,000 free-standing facilities in the United States, said Utah Hyperbaric"s medical director, Dr. Larry Stoddard.

After 27 treatments for diabetes-related sores on her foot, Ferguson said she could see a definite improvement. She"d already had one amputation due to diabetes, and she believes the oxygen treatments kept her from losing any more toes.

Another patient, Clair West of Ogden, hopes the therapy will keep him from losing another leg. He, too, sees an improvement.

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy uses pure oxygen in a pressurized environment to speed and enhance the body"s natural ability to heal, Stoddard said during an interview in his office.

A brochure provided by Stoddard says this therapy enables more oxygen to be dissolved in the plasma, which leads to enhanced growth of new blood vessels, increases the ability of white blood cells to destroy bacteria and remove toxins, and increases the growth of the cells involved in the healing of wounds.

Even brain neurons are metabolically enhanced, according to the literature.

Stoddard, whose facility has been in business for 2 1/2 years, said he became interested in oxygen therapy when he was in the Air Force and was treated with that therapy for a bone infection in his face. He was trained as a urologist at the Wilford Hall Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. In 1999, he attended a weeklong training course there on hyperbaric oxygen therapy.

The hyperbaric treatments are not complex: In England, it"s not unheard of for a group of people with multiple sclerosis to pool their money to buy a hyperbaric chamber, then set up the machine in someone"s garage, Stoddard said.

"It"s more popular in other parts of the world than here," he said.

There are few side effects associated with the therapy, Stoddard said. About one in 10,000 people can have oxygen toxicity, which is manifested in seizures.

KEITH JOHNSON/Standard-Examiner

Newsome prepares to enter the chamber.

So far, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved hyperbaric oxygen therapy for 13 conditions: air or gas embolism, carbon monoxide poisoning, gas gangrene, crushing injuries, decompression sickness, enhancement of healing of problem wounds, exceptional blood loss, intracranial abscess, necrotizing soft tissue infections, osteomyelites, delayed radiation injuries, skin grafts and thermal burns.

It"s only been during the last five to 10 years that hyperbaric medicine has moved into the public eye, but compressed air was used to treat disease as far back as 1662. More spectacularly, a researcher built a pressurized metal sphere in Cincinnati in 1928 and outfitted the 72-room hyperbaric chamber as a luxury hotel.

Stoddard said the doctor "failed to document his results," and the American Medical Association condemned his therapy.

Divers have long used hyperbaric therapy as a treatment for the bends: Stoddard still occasionally gets local patients who"ve gone to Blue Lake in Nevada, then dove a little too deep and emerged a little too quickly.

"This isn"t the fringe of medicine," Stoddard said. Patients typically receive from 20 to 100 treatments that last 40 to 90 minutes each, Stoddard said. The acrylic tubes are pressurized at 1.5 to 2.4 atmospheres while the patients inside them are breathing pure oxygen.

Some people feel invigorated after each treatment, but most don"t feel any difference, he said.

Name game

A little research on the Internet yields wildly enthusiastic reports about hyperbaric oxygen therapy abroad. A Cuban doctor claimed the therapy cured HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Filipino doctors reported similar results with AIDS patients, until a police raid ended the experiment after three weeks. The therapy is variously touted as a treatment for cancer, autism, leprosy and Alzheimer"s.

This treatment also has a celebrity factor: Singer/songwriter Michael Jackson reportedly sleeps in a hyperbaric chamber. Cuban dictator Fidel Castro has chambers in his home, office and airplane.

The Dallas Cowboys, San Francisco 49ers and New York Jets are among the football teams that use hyperbaric oxygen therapy to treat sports injuries. Hockey teams like the Vancouver Canucks and New York Rangers use this therapy for the same reason.

More tentative uses

Stoddard has a lengthy list of conditions treated by hyperbaric oxygen therapy, but makes no claims about HIV or cures for cancer. He does say hyperbarics can be used to treat Alzheimer"s, and he has testimonials on computer disk from parents of two patients who said this therapy improved their children"s cerebral palsy.

The FDA has not approved hyperbaric oxygen therapy for any of these conditions, but Stoddard and other proponents say the treatment benefits victims of near-drowning and people with closed head injuries, sickle cell anemia, severed limbs, spinal cord injury, organic brain syndrome, stroke, multiple sclerosis, hearing loss, peripheral neuropathy, nonhealing fractures, tendon and ligament injuries, delayed wound healing, frostbite, diabetic retinopathy, migraine and cluster headaches, chronic fatigue, myocardial infarction, Crohn"s disease, Bell"s palsy, Lyme disease, Meniers disease, reflex sympathetic dystrophy and brown recluse spider bites.

It is not illegal to use or promote hyperbaric oxygen treatment for those conditions because the FDA does not regulate the practice of medicine, FDA spokeswoman Sharon Snider said during a telephone interview.

Once a product is approved and on the market, a physician may prescribe whatever treatment he or she believes is beneficial.

LDS Hospital weighs in

Dr. Lindell Weaver, medical director of the hyperbaric medical department at LDS Hospital, said his office largely follows the FDA list when prescribing hyperbaric therapy, unless the condition is rare and potentially lethal or someone is doing approved research.

That does not mean he considers hyperbaric therapy ineffective for these off-label uses such as treating cerebral palsy, autism or Alzheimer"s.

"If it works for some of these problems, we don"t understand how it works," Weaver said. "That"s not to say it doesn"t work."

The disadvantage with off-label uses is that the therapy can distract patients from seeking treatments that do work, he said.

"Nevertheless, hyperbaric therapy has importance with healing," Weaver said. "It"s really pretty dramatic what high pressures of oxygen can do to facilitate healing at the biochemical level."

Research and insurance

Funding research is a problem, Stoddard said, since most of the grant money for these projects comes from the big pharmaceutical companies. Oxygen can"t be bottled as a drug, so there"s not as much funding available for formal studies, he said.

Medicare covers only what the FDA has approved, and insurance companies are also reluctant to cover the treatments -- although Stoddard says research has shown hyperbaric oxygen therapy benefits every condition for which he has recommended treatment.

"There"s a whole bunch of things that have been proved medically useful, like bone marrow transplants and liver transplants, but the insurance companies are slow to grant approval," Stoddard said.

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