By Klaus M. Stiefel
Have you ever gotten bent? I hope not. Careful diving practices and modern dive computers make the possibility of a decompression accident slim, but nevertheless, I’m sure you know the proper procedure if you have such an accident and end up with an unhealthy dose of bubbles in your body: You have to take a “chamber ride.” You’ll have to complete multiple visits to a decompression chamber at elevated pressures, and at times breathe pure oxygen while exposed to above-normal (hyperbaric) pressures. This will reverse the bubble formation and alleviate the decompression illness symptoms. The chamber you would visit will probably be much larger than the coffin-sized deco chambers of Cousteau’s early days. For instance, the modern chamber in the Prince of Wales Hospital in Sydney is at least twice the size of my old studio apartment in the nearby suburb of Surry Hills. It has space for a patient, a chamber technician and plenty of modern medical equipment.
Why would a hospital invest in such a hyperbaric chamber? Although they love divers in Australia, saving those who get bent is not the only purpose for these large and cost-intensive medical devices. And this is a good thing, since it provides more reasons for hospitals to purchase such a chamber. Crohn’s disease, a chronic inflammation of the bowel, has also been successfully treated with elevated air pressures. The chronic nature of Crohn’s and the lack of solutions for solving the often-genetic underlying problem have led to a search to alleviate the symptoms. Hence, medical doctors have tried some unusual methods, such as exposing the patients to the high pressures in a chamber, and it has worked.
Chamber rides also alleviate the symptoms of severe burns, help with carbon monoxide poisoning, central retinal artery occlusion, radiation injuries and a variety of soft-tissue injuries and infections.
There seem to be a few related mechanisms at work in all of these cases. Simply the availability of more oxygen to otherwise poorly supplied, damaged tissues helps the human body recover. The increased oxygen also seems to boost a few of the signaling cascades inside cells. The proteins inside our cells communicate by elevating and lowering the concentrations of a number of chemicals; this chemical language, it seems, is twisted by hyperbaric oxygen in a manner that aids healing.