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Your Healthy Family: Hyperbaric medicine can help with many medical conditions

Posted at 3:49 PM, Jun 27, 2023
and last updated 2023-06-30 10:43:47-04

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In a recent story, we learned about the remarkable recovery of Sarah Thilenius after she fell several hundred feet while hiking Mount Yale last November. Among the many injuries Sarah suffered was severe frostbite on both feet. A key part of her recovery was time spent in a hyperbaric chamber at UCHealth Memorial Central Hospital in Colorado Spings.

Dr. Robert Price is the medical director of hyperbaric medicine, explains that a hyperbaric chamber is “an acrylic tube that we pressurize with 100% pure oxygen. The patient is in there for a total of 90 minutes (per session) and breathes in 100% oxygen.”

The result of being in a pressurized environment and breathing 100% pure oxygen has significant effects on the body's healing process. Dr. Price explains: “The increased pressure compresses everything and gives the tissue what we call supernatural levels of oxygen. That stimulates growth factors and also helps with oxygen delivery to that tissue that’s healing. It’s was key in helping the multiple skin grafts that Sarah got over the past three months to heal. Breathing in 100% oxygen instead of the 21% we do normally allows us to achieve very high levels of tissue oxygenation that not only helps with healing but also in stimulating those growth factors, and it’s key, especially in active tissue for serious tissue healing. The tissue becomes metabolically active, it has increased demands for oxygen and nutrients, and those skin grafts that were applied (in Sarah’s case) need those nutrients of oxygen along with the nutritional things she eats to heal. ”

While it takes some time for the body to slowly adjust to the varying pressure that is applied in a hyperbaric chamber, it actually doesn’t take a large amount of pressure to trigger the healing process while in the chamber. It’s similar to being anywhere from 33 to 50 feet underwater. One atmosphere below the surface of the water is defined as 33 feet. Dr. Price says, “In this chamber behind me, we take patients to 2 to 2.5 times that pressure, so we call it 2 or 2.5 atmospheres of pressure.”

Besides helping skin grafts heal - as in Sarah’s case, Dr. Price says there are many other medical conditions treated with hyperbaric medicine. “Most of our patients day-to-day are either diabetic wounds, diabetic foot ulcers, or patients that have radiation injury. For example, if someone has cancer and then they get radiation treatment, sometimes that makes tissue damaged from the radiation not heal. Occasionally, we'll treat compromised skin flaps or skin grafts after plastic surgery, or carbon monoxide poisoning. Occasionally we also treat what’s called decompression sickness, or the bends.”

I was actually surprised to learn that decompression sickness was a condition that someone could have and make it back to Southern Colorado with.

I asked Dr. Price, “You see divers here in Colorado?” He told me Colorado has a lot of certified divers, adding that “occasionally divers travel back to Colorado with the bends and we can treat that here. We also have military divers and flyers from the Air Force and Army we have treated as well.”

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