Gregory Clark likes to bring a couple of funny movies to his appointments at the Center for Wound Healing at Parkview Health’s Randallia campus in Fort Wayne.
That’s because the local man can watch them during the 90-minute treatments he has been undergoing in one of the center’s two new hyperbaric oxygen chambers.
“Some people say they can sleep in it, but I’m not one of them,” the 49-year-old Clark says before climbing into the bullet-shaped, mostly transparent apparatus, which will deliver pure oxygen under pressure equivalent to what a person would experience 33 feet underwater.
Clark, who has diabetes, was prescribed hyperbaric treatments to help heal a stubborn scar after surgery to alleviate foot ulcers, a not-uncommon complication of his condition.
And wound-healing is just one of a growing list of uses that are now making hyperbaric chambers proliferate at hospitals around the nation.
Today, about 2,000 U.S. hospitals have hyperbaric chambers, says John Peters, executive director of the Undersea & Hyperbaric Medical Society, a training and certification body. That, he says, is “a 30 to 40 percent growth since 2000.”
One reason, Peters says, is that the chambers, once seen as an expensive specialty item, are now approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration for use in 13 conditions, with more under study. Appropriate use is covered by Medicare and other insurances, he says.
The ability of the chambers to help wounds heal is fueling much of the growth, says Raymond Brown, Parkview’s hyperbaric oxygen technician.
The chambers help, he says, delivering 15 to 20 times the normal concentration of oxygen into the bloodstream.
The oxygen nourishes damaged tissues and stimulates a process called angiogenesis, the growth of new blood vessels from old ones. Hyperbaric treatments also aid delivery of anti-infection medications, Brown says.
Burn patients, who need to replace damaged skin, are frequent candidates for hyperbaric treatments, says Mark Miller, safety director of the Department of Hyperbaric Medicine at St. Joseph Hospital in Fort Wayne.
The hospital, which has two multiperson units, has done hyperbaric treatments since the early 1990s, Miller says – often for traditional uses with divers who got the bends, or decompression sickness, after surfacing too quickly, and for people suffering carbon monoxide poisoning or smoke inhalation.
Other approved uses are for helping heal surgical grafts, care of skin around intubation entry points, recalcitrant bone infections, fast-moving skin infections and radiation-damaged skin from cancer treatments, Miller says.
Among conditions being studied are traumatic brain injuries, seizure disorders and stroke. But claims that the therapy aids their recovery remain unproven, and the society does not endorse them, Peters says.
Last year, FDA officials warned consumers against unproven claims for hyperbaric therapy, which they said was being touted as treatment for AIDS, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord and sports-related injuries, among other ailments.
Dr. Troy Sargent, general surgeon and medical director of Parkview Center for Wound Healing, says the hospital’s new chambers have been busy, treating six to seven patients a day.
“We’ve been growing month by month,” he says. “This is an untapped therapy. There’s just the potential for unlimited growth.”
Meanwhile, St. Joseph’s units – together able to hold 17 people – also are busy, Miller says.
“I haven’t seen any down-tick from having the other facility,” he says. “We use ours every day from Monday through Friday and sometimes on the weekends.”
St. Joseph is one of a few facilities in Indiana to have hyperbaric treatment available 24/7 for emergencies, Miller says. He also sees an advantage in having the chambers in the same facility as a specialized burn unit.
As a patient, Clark says he found hyperbaric treatments relaxing, if time consuming. Although all he had to do was breathe normally, his treatments continued for five days a week for about seven weeks.
He passed the time entertained by the remote-controlled TV mounted on the unit.
Clark says the transparent chamber never made him feel claustrophobic.
He was allowed to move and roll to one side during treatments, he says; however, he also says he took a sedative beforehand “to help me relax.”
Sargent says some patients experience transitory pain or tingling in the area of the wound because the treatment also causes nerves to be stimulated. Other possible complications, he says, are getting too much oxygen too quickly or an oxygen bubble.
But, with the chamber already in a hospital, emergency care is nearby if needed, he says.
Clark says he had a little discomfort, including what he calls “a shooting pain” in one foot and temporary pressure in his ears, “like in an airplane” as the pressure was increased.
After spending so much time with Brown, he now considers the technician a friend.
Brown jokes that he sometimes hears what patients say when they talk in their sleep during treatments.
“We get to know all their little secrets,” he says with a smile. “Yeah, we get to know our patients real well.”