Hyperbaric chambers are used today to allow patients to breathe air that is 100% oxygen at a pressure higher than usual (sea level). This technology has come a long way since first being introduced to the world.

The earliest known use of hyperbaric chambers and hyperbaric oxygen (HBO) is 1662; however, its first clinical use was in the mid-1800s. It was developed and tested by the United States military after the first World War. HBO was used in the 1930s to treat deep sea divers with decompression sickness. It wasn’t until the 1950s when clinical trials revealed many other benefits from being exposed to HBO. These experiments set the stage for the treatments we have today. 

Oxygen itself was not discovered until 1772 by Swedish pharmacist Karl W. Scheele and by English amateur chemist Joseph Priestley in 1774. The first doctor to have used oxygen therapy was French physician Caillens in 1783. Physician-philosopher Thomas Beddoes founded the Pneumatic Institution for inhalation gas therapy in England. Although, he assumed incorrectly about how some diseases would respond to higher or lower oxygen concentrations, so his treatments offered no medicinal benefit. 

The first hyperbaric chamber built in the United States was in 1891 in New York. Dr. Orval Cunningham grew curious about hyperbaric chambers while the influenza pandemic was going on at the end of World War I. He used the chambers to treat a variety of diseases like diabetes, arthritis, and syphilis over the next few years. Cunningham presented the largest hyperbaric chamber in the world in 1928 in Ohio. The medical community was still skeptical of his work at the time because he did not support his claims with clinical data. 

Brazilian physician Álvaro Osório de Almeida also recognized the potential of HBO therapy and published many medical papers about the effects of high doses of oxygen on tumours in animals and people. Physicians and scientists continue to uncover new uses of HBO therapy in the management and treatment of diseases. 

Since then, HBO has evolved to treat a variety of ailments successfully. It can be used to treat serious infections, air bubbles in blood vessels, and stubborn wounds that heal slowly because of diabetes or radiation injury. In a chamber, the air pressure is brought up to three times higher than normal so that your lungs can take in more oxygen. Your blood then carries this oxygen throughout your body, helping fight bacteria and spur the discharge of growth factors and stem cells to promote healing. 

The tissues in your body need an ample supply of oxygen to function optimally. Injured tissue needs even more oxygen to persevere. HBO therapy can be used to treat many conditions today, and medical institutions use it in different ways. Your doctor might suggest HBO therapy if you suffer from one of these conditions:

  • Radiation injury
  • Skin graft or skin flap
  • Sudden and painless vision loss
  • Anemia, severe
  • Brain abscess
  • Carbon monoxide poisoning
  • Gangrene
  • Crushing injury
  • Burn
  • Decompression sickness
  • Deafness, sudden
  • Air bubbles in blood vessels 
  • Skin or bone infections
  • Non-Healing wounds

To experience the full benefits of HBO therapy, you will likely need more than one session depending on your condition. Carbon monoxide poisoning, for example, can be treated in three sessions while others, like nonhealing wounds, may need 20 to 40 sessions. HBO therapy is usually administered as one component of a treatment plan along with other therapies and medicine.