We all need oxygen to breathe. It feeds our circulation system, which carries nutrients throughout our bodies.
So it makes sense to increase oxygen if we have wounds, infections or other debilitating conditions.
That is the premise behind hyperbaric oxygen therapy.
This therapy has become such a major aspect of medical care that McKay- Dee Hospital, Ogden Regional Medical Center and Davis Hospital and Medical Center in Layton all have facilities for the treatment.
For most ailments, hyperbaric oxygen therapy calls for a commitment similar to that required by any physical training regimen, with sessions Monday through Friday for 30 to 80 sessions. Each session will last 2 to 21/2 hours in chambers with 100 percent oxygen at air pressures two to three times greater than that at sea level.
The most common concern of patients when they begin are the mono chambers themselves. Each chamber holds one patient and is individually pressurized.
Patients are rolled in on a gurney and sealed into the chamber by a big door. The chambers are acrylic, so the patient can see out and medical staff can see in.
"One thing I tell them (patients) before they go in is, 'If for some reason you can't stay in there ... we are going to get you out of there,'" said Dr. John Martinez, who works in the two-year-old McKay-Dee Wound Care and Hyperbaric Center.
Educating the hyperbaric patient is a big concern of Preston Burrell, the center's safety director. Patients are instructed on what can or cannot be in the chamber. Only cotton can be worn. Metal is not allowed. Electronics aren't permitted, nor are books or paper products.
One-hundred percent oxygen is a very flammable environment. Burrell and the hyperbaric techs often test for static electricity. Patients wear a grounding wire.
"We were doing a study with troops, and one of them had their lucky lighter," said Burrell, a former Marine and commercial diver. "We did the whole education -- flammable environment. Don't take anything in there that can cause a flame. We caught him five minutes into the treatment with his lucky lighter."
The incident was in a multiplayer chamber, so it wasn't as dangerous as an individual chamber, but Burrell said there still could have been "a very bad accident."
Hyperbaric oxygen improves the body's ability to heal wounds, promoting the growth of new blood vessels, decreasing swelling and inflammation, helping remove poisons and increasing the body's ability to fight infection. It is an additive process -- the more treatments, the better the oxygen saturation in the body.
"If you are going to do this, you need to come here every day," Martinez said. "It is a huge issue with us. We do everything we can to make it positive. We put movies out and do everything we can to make patients feel like they aren't wasting their time."
Hyperbaric oxygen isn't a new concept. A key point in its history is its use during the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge in the 1890s. Workers were sent down to work in chambers under water to finish the footings for the bridge. Many suffered and even died from decompression sickness, originally known as caisson disease because caissons under pressure were used to keep water from flooding engineering excavations below the water table. Hyperbaric oxygen successfully treated the illness.
Hyperbaric oxygen then took off at that time to the point it was thought it could cure everything. Martinez said there was even talk of hyperbaric oxygen operating rooms. The medical society went in the opposite direction, saying it wasn't working and "they threw the baby out with the bath water," Martinez said.
Studies beginning in the latter half of last century, however, brought hyperbarics to its stable use in medicine today.
Hyperbaric oxygen is only one part of treatment plans offered by Martinez, nurse practitioner Paula Cooper and their staff. Dressings, debridement, nutrition, off-loading (pressure relief) and patient education play a big role.
"What we see is a lot of wounds that aren't healing," Martinez said. "We do a lot of testing up front to see what is causing wounds not to heal. Diabetes is an issue, but blood is everything to healing. If you don't get enough blood flow, you are not going to heal."
Burrell reminds patients that the oxygen treatments are only part of the healing equation.
"There are a lot of other things that go into healing," he said. "Your protein intake. Your sugars being low. Hyperbarics will do some of the work, but the patient must do the rest."