Climbing into the hyperbaric chamber felt like climbing into a body bag. I was seized with panic immediately as the zipper made its way up from my feet to my face. I could hear the loud hum of the machines through the bag as I became acutely aware I was trapped. As the highly oxygenated air pumped through the bag my ears began popping from the pressure as if I was rapidly ascending a mountain peak. The lights were turned off and ambient music turned up, and, fifteen minutes later, I experienced the blissed-out high of the oxygen and decided this must be what heaven felt like and I never wanted to leave.
Oxygen not only creates the feeling of a “high,” it relieves anxiety and promotes the body’s ability to heal wounds. The air we breath is about 20 percent oxygen, 78 percent nitrogen and less than 0.3 percent carbon dioxide. When more oxygen is delivered to the tissues through the blood the body increases its ability to heal. The purpose of hyperbaric oxygen therapy is to force more oxygen into the bloodstream encouraging the body to heal itself.
Hyperbaric oxygen chambers come in both portable and hard-shelled units, many are solo coffin-like experiences but others are multi-person chambers. The air inside the unit is pressurized to three times normal air pressure and 100 percent oxygenated air is pumped in. Every breath taken inside a chamber delivers potent oxygen through the lungs into the bloodstream resulting in increased oxygen in the various organs’ tissues.
That explains the physical healing, but what about the experience made me so happy?
The lack of carbon dioxide may explain the mental effects more so than the increase of oxygen. Because humans inhale oxygen (O2) and exhale carbon dioxide (CO2), in smaller spaces localized CO2 can become concentrated and mildly increase anxiety because the CO2 ratio change can signal to the body that it is suffocating.
In the Chuck Palahniuk book turned Brad Pitt movie Fight Club, Tyler Durden claims the only reason for oxygen masks in an airplane are to sedate the passengers so they “accept their fate” as their plane crashes into the ocean. While there is no actual study or evidence to back up that specific claim, it is possible oxygen masks do have a calming “high” that could ease end-of-life panic.
Veterans suffering from PTSD have even come to find hyperbaric therapy relieves many of their anxiety and depression associated symptoms. Professional athletes and fighters have taken to the therapy to help rapidly heal bruises and other damage acquired on the job. In the clinic I visited in Las Vegas, MMA fighters are among the most frequent clientele.
Oxygen is a well-known physical and mental healer. Aerobic exercise and yoga are known to aid in treating the symptoms of pretty much all mental and physical conditions humans suffer from. Both practices center around the breath and increased oxygen intake. Aerobic exercise, or cardio, means “requires oxygen” and refers to exercise that increases heart rate, blood flow, and therefore produces deep oxygen-delivering breaths to the body. Anyone who enjoys yoga or cardio exercise knows fondly the natural high the workouts create.
But hyperbaric oxygen treatment is not without controversy.
The problem with hyperbaric treatment is there are not enough good studies to suggest it is an actual treatment for a lot of the conditions people are using it for. The FDA must approve its use as a medical treatment for it to be prescribed by doctors and the costs covered by insurance. Hyperbaric chamber therapy is expensive because it is only FDA-approved as a treatment for 14 conditions. Most users, like me, are doing it off-label which can cost $80 to $150 an hour. Personal home machines, like the one Michael Jackson slept in, run about $20,000.
The treatment was first created by Kansas City physician Orval J. Cunningham specifically for diabetes and cancer, which he believed were caused by organisms that couldn’t grow in the presence of oxygen. Based on his theories, a massive hyperbaric chamber sphere and hospital, The Cunningham Sanitarium in Cleveland, was built in 1928 and began treating patients. A few years later the project became financially unsustainable during the Great Depression and was closed permanently and the impressive metal sphere was disassembled and sold as scrap.
Cunningham had, years before opening the sanitarium, observed differences in healing of patients with Spanish Flu at different altitudes and began successfully treating patients using hyperbaric oxygen therapy, which inspired him to test the theory on other conditions. Ultimately, there were never enough studies done to prove its efficacy for most conditions and it seems unlikely today that any pharmaceutical company would pay the large costs associated with getting the treatment approved or studied for other conditions, and so the treatment remains largely unstudied for the wide variety of conditions it could potentially treat.
By the time my body bag was deflated and I accepted the fate of having to reenter reality, I knew I wanted to do it again and again. My skin was visibly glowing and my attitude lifted, a feeling I carried with me for a couple days after my two one-hour treatments. I had wanted to try it to see if it had any affect on the symptoms of my autoimmune disorder, Crohn’s Disease. While I was enjoying my time in the tube I took the opportunity of all the extra time on my hands with nowhere to go to read into how what I was doing was affecting me. There are a handful of studies showing the success of hyperbaric oxygen to treat it, yet it is still not an FDA-approved use of the treatment. For now, patients like me will have to seek out this therapy and study it on their own.