What is Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy?

Hyperbaric (i.e. increased pressure) Oxygen Therapy or HBO is a specialised medical treatment that utilises the healing properties of oxygen when inhaled under increased pressure. To achieve this, oxygen is administered in a specially designed pressure vessel called a hyperbaric chamber. Under these conditions oxygen dissolves in the blood to such an extent that it demonstrates certain medicinal properties: Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy is able to allow injured or infected tissue to heal where this would not otherwise be possible. All the body's primary healing processes are oxygen dependent and by treating complex medical problems with Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy, limbs can sometimes be saved and complications can be prevented or reduced in high risk situations.

How Does Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy work?
Pure oxygen breathed under increased pressure demonstrates unique pharmacological properties not achievable under normal conditions. During Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy up to 15 times more oxygen dissolves in the plasma (i.e. the straw-coloured liquid in blood). This is even sufficient to sustain life in the absence of oxygen carrying red blood cells. Although oxygen administered in a hospital ward is valuable and can support the body, only Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy can initiate both deep and superficial healing in compromised tissue. Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy stimulates the formation of new blood vessels (angiogenesis), which is especially helpful in irradiated and in diabetic wounds. Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy kills life-threatening bacteria by improving the body's immune response. It also reduces swelling rapidly and dramatically in traumatic injuries (when initiated early) and improves the body's process of healing in general. Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy is a safe and painless form of conventional medical treatment.

Who May Benefit from Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy?
There are 15 medical conditions where Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy may be life saving:

  1. Arterial Gas Embolism
  2. Decompression Sickness
  3. Carbon monoxide poisoning
  4. Clostridial Myositis and Myonecrosis (Gas gangrene)
  5. Crush injuries, Compartment Syndrome and Other Traumatic Ischaemias
  6. Enhancement of Healing in Selected Problem Wounds
  7. Necrotising Soft Tissue Infections
  8. Refractory Osteomyelitis
  9. Delayed Radiation Injury
  10. Compromised Skin Grafts & Flaps
  11. Acute Thermal Burns
  12. Severe Blood Loss Anaemia
  13. Inoperable Brain Abscesses
  14. Central Retinal Artery Thrombosis
  15. Idiopathic Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss
What are the potential side-effects of Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy?
Before commencing Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy, patients should be aware of potential side-effects of this treatment modality.

How should I prepare for my Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy?

Before commencing Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy, patients are examined by a Specialist to determine if Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy will be valuable and safe for each individual patient. If there are any problems that may influence treatment, these can be addressed and corrected in advance.

What does Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy involve?

Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy involves daily treatments of 90 minutes that may need to be repeated once to three times daily depending on the condition being treated. Usually one treatment is given per day, five days per week. The total number of treatments also depends on the condition being treated and how it responds to Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy. Between 5 and 30 individual treatments may be required. Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy is administered under the direct supervision of a physician and a staff member is with the patient at all times. All patients are fully informed regarding Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy and kept up to date with their progress. Due to the high cost of the oxygen equipment and the level of medical supervision required, Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy is relatively expensive. When compared to the cost of treatment failures and extended hospitalisation, Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy is very cost effective, however.

What should I expect?

Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy is not painful or unpleasant and is provided in a peaceful, relaxed environment. During treatments patients may rest, listen to music or watch DVD’s of their choice. Patients may request termination of a treatment at any stage if they feel uncomfortable for any reason. Before the first treatment, patients have the chance to see what the hyperbaric chamber looks like and how it works. During treatment, only a low pitched hiss of fresh oxygen flowing into the chamber is audible and in the first 5 to 8 minutes, the pressure is gradually increased to the treatment pressure. At this stage patients will notice their ears feeling blocked. This is normal and they are taught how to equalise their ears to pressure by gently blowing against a blocked nose. Patients with previous ear problems or who have experienced pain on aeroplanes may need to see an Ear Nose and Throat specialist before receiving Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy .

General Information


All that is required of patients during treatment is to breathe normally and allow the oxygen to do its work. To prevent static electricity inside the oxygen filled chamber, patients are given cotton garments to wear during treatment. Nothing may be taken into the chamber without the permission of the hyperbaric staff. Please note that visitors are not allowed in the treatment area during treatments.

Hyperbaric Unit


Vascular and Hyperbaric Unit, Life Eugene Marais Hospital, Les Marais, Pretoria, South Africa 012 335 8651