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Hyperbaric Oxygen Treatment for Decompression Sickness


Over the years, hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) has been applied widely in the treatment of decompression sickness (DCS). DCS, which is also referred to as ‘the bends’, is a condition that mostly affects those who interact with huge changes in altitude as well as ambient pressure. The body is shocked by the abrupt changes in altitude therefore leading to the dissolution of nitrogen and other inert gases into the bloodstream. Those who are hugely affected by DCS include deep-sea divers who interact with large water bodies, miners, mountain climbers, astronauts, and aviators, among others. It occurs when one returns relatively fast to regular atmospheric conditions. Older, overweight, and relatively unfit individuals are more susceptible to this condition in instances where they engage themselves in the aforementioned activities.

The sudden changes in ambient pressure cause the body to experience sudden internal changes which include interruption of tissue structure and function, blockage of blood flow, capillary leakage, stimulation of platelets, and impairment of endothelial tissue. DCS is associated with a range of symptoms which include discomfort or pain in the joints, numbness, skin rashes well as chest pains, and difficulty breathing. All key joints become affected i.e. the knees, elbows, ankles, and wrists therefore making it difficult to move as well. Some patients also experience drowsiness, nausea and vomiting, reduced visual clarity, discomfort in the ears, increased exhaustion, and persistent headaches. If left unattended, the condition could also result in paralysis, seizures, coughing up blood, comas, and numbness. In extremely dire cases death could result.

How Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy Works

Hyperbaric oxygen treatment is the most applied form of treatment for DCS. It is preferred due to its high efficiency upon use. It serves as a harmless and painless form of treatment when administered correctly. HBOT aids in getting rid of nitrogen bubbles and other inert gases that have lodged themselves into the bloodstream. Oxygen in the pressurized chambers suppresses the nitrogen bubbles hence shrinking their size before getting rid of them. Once the bubbles have reduced in size, the atmospheric pressure inside the chambers is reduced gradually hence the term decompression; this is done to avoid damage to the tissues in context. HBOT also aids in transporting oxygenated blood to the affected tissues which then accelerates the recovery process. The severity of the different symptoms is handled by filling the tissues with oxygen. Apart from reducing the concentration of nitrogen bubbles in the bloodstream, it also reduces the hazardous swelling associated with DCS. HBOT is highly recommended for all individuals who engage in activities that involve sudden changes in altitude even in cases where symptoms of DCS do not show up. It aids in building tolerance as well as the longstanding effects of exposing the body to such tough conditions.

Sources

Ikomi, F. (2019). Recompression therapy for decompression sickness and arterial gas embolism. Hyperbaric Oxygenation Therapy, 14(4), 131–152. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-7836-2_8

Moon, R. E., & Mitchell, S. J. (2021). Hyperbaric oxygen for decompression sickness: 2021 update. Undersea and Hyperbaric Medicine, 4(2), 195–203. https://doi.org/10.22462/03.04.2021.11


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