How Does a Hyperbaric Chamber Work?

A hyperbaric chamber.
Pure oxygen can be pumped into a hyperbaric chamber for medical treatment.
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  • Written By: Mike Howells
  • Edited By: Michelle Arevalo
  • Images By: Steve Simpson, Nmcandre
  • Last Modified Date: 28 July 2014
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A hyperbaric chamber is a device used to deliver hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT), which is the intake of oxygen-rich or oxygen-pure air. Though considered controversial early in its development, the hyperbaric chamber has become an accepted treatment for a variety of conditions, from carbon monoxide poisoning to promoting injury recovery. Modern chambers can either be hard or soft, that is, either a rigid pressure vessel or a portable, tent-like apparatus.

The basic principle behind hyperbaric chamber therapy is that cells repair themselves more efficiently when exposed to a higher oxygen content via the blood. It was first developed as a treatment for air embolisms known as the bends, which is a condition in which nitrogen bubbles form in the blood as a result of quick pressure change, suffered often by deep sea divers who surface too quickly. HBOT serves the dual-purpose of preventing oxygen starvation in the cells, while eliminating the excess nitrogen from the blood.

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Less intense treatments were quickly discovered to be beneficial in other, non-emergency applications. Sitting in an oxygen rich environment for several hours at a time, over a period of days and weeks, was found to promote general healing in addition to helping a number of specific conditions. In a U.S. hospital, the average cost for an hour's worth of hyperbaric treatment ranges anywhere from $1,000 to $2,000 US Dollars (USD). Much of this cost is increasingly covered by insurance, as the list of afflictions treatable with HBOT has grown considerably through the first decade of the 21st century. Ocular and limb degeneration due to diabetes, slow-healing or necrotic wounds, and skin grafts are just a few of the problems found to respond favorably to HBOT.

The hard version is probably what springs to mind when picturing a hyperbaric chamber. These traditional machines are made out of a strong metal, like steel or aluminum, with small plexiglass or acrylic windows. Smaller ones fit only one person at a time, but large chambers can fit upwards of a dozen people at once, or those who need apparatus, such as a wheelchair or hospital bed. Soft chambers are typically a flexible, plastic skin stretched over a steel skeleton, with a zippered seam as opposed to a steel hatch.

In a larger, multi-person chamber, individual patients or staff must wear a personal breathing mask, similar to those that fighter pilots wear, to deliver the prescribed ratio of oxygen to normal air. In a small hard chamber or a portable one, the entire enclosure is filled with the correct ratio of gases, and the patient is able to breathe freely. Though not able to deliver the nearly-pure oxygen levels that a hard enclosure can achieve, soft chambers are useful for claustrophobic or home-bound patients who only need mild hyperbaric therapy.

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