Here’s something surprising: If your wound isn’t healing, it could be that it needs a little fresh air.

The good news is that nonhealing wounds can get that fresh air – as in 100% pure oxygen – through a medical treatment called hyperbaric oxygen therapy. The even better news? Hyperbaric oxygen therapy works for most people, even when other treatments haven't helped.

But what is hyperbaric oxygen therapy? And how does it help chronic wounds? Read on to learn about hyperbaric oxygen therapy at the Wound Healing Center at Amery Hospital & Clinic.

What is hyperbaric oxygen therapy?

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is a treatment where you’re surrounded by 100% oxygen in an enclosed chamber. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy has a range of uses, including treating carbon monoxide poisoning and decompression sickness. But one of the most common and effective uses for hyperbaric oxygen therapy is treating chronic and nonhealing wounds.

During hyperbaric oxygen therapy, the atmospheric pressure in the chamber is two to three times higher than normal. Because of this added pressure, the oxygen in your blood can double or even triple. So as your blood flows through your body, all your cells, tissues and organs are getting more oxygen.

How hyperbaric oxygen therapy works

Higher blood-oxygen levels can help your body overcome problems with the wound healing process such as poor circulation, a weakened immune system and wound inflammation. Plus, higher levels of oxygen will:

  • Bring more oxygen-rich blood to the wound site to help you heal.
  • Fight bacteria and strengthen your immune system.
  • Stimulate the release of growth factors that promote healing.
  • Help form new skin cells and new collagen.

Wounds treated with hyperbaric oxygen therapy

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy may be a possibility when someone’s wounds don’t heal with other types of treatment. Wounds treated with hyperbaric oxygen therapy may include:

  • Diabetic ulcers and sores
  • Lower leg ulcers and sores
  • Certain pressure ulcers (bedsores)
  • Gangrene
  • Skin grafts and skin flaps
  • Post-operation wounds and infections
  • Post-radiation burns

The effectiveness of hyperbaric oxygen therapy

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy can help nonhealing wounds, even ones that are very old. But how effective is it? About 75% of wounds can be healed by hyperbaric oxygen therapy, according to real world data based on over 600,000 wounds.

Results can vary, depending on your wound and if you complete all your treatments. But data shows you can have good results even if you have a bad wound such as gangrene in the front of your foot.

The same data shows that people with deep diabetic ulcers had a healing rate of over 60% when they had some hyperbaric oxygen therapy – and that healing rate jumped up to 75% if they completed all their prescribed treatments.

What happens during hyperbaric oxygen therapy?

During your session, you’ll lay in a tube-like space while surrounded by pure oxygen. For your safety, there are strict guidelines about what’s allowed in chamber. You’ll need to wear clothing that’s provided by the Wound Healing Center, and you won’t be able to take anything with you into the chamber.

So, how long does a hyperbaric oxygen therapy session last? When oxygen therapy is used for wound healing, the sessions are usually about two hours, but it may be different based on your wound.

What to expect when you're inside a hyperbaric chamber

Many people have questions about what it will feel like to get hyperbaric oxygen therapy. Here are a few things to know:

  • You’ll be able to see – The walls of the hyperbaric chamber are clear so you can see what’s happening around you.
  • You’ll be able to communicate – There’s an intercom you can use to communicate with the care team at any time.
  • You’ll be able to move – You can move around as much as you want within the chamber. It’s not like an MRI where you need to hold completely still.
  • You don’t have to be bored – During your session, you can listen to music or watch a movie on the TV mounted above the hyperbaric chamber. It’s also fine to take a nap.
  • You may be able to feel the increased air pressure – Most people don’t find the increased air pressure uncomfortable, and some don’t even notice it at all. But for some people, the increased air pressure can cause a feeling of fullness in the ears (like you might feel on an airplane) but yawning or swallowing can help.
  • You may hear the flow of oxygen – You may hear oxygen flowing through the chamber during your session. But if you’re watching TV or listening to music, those sounds will likely cover it up.
  • We’ll be there for you – The care team at the Wound Healing Center will do everything possible to make you comfortable during your sessions. If you are anxious, your doctor may be able to prescribe medicines to help you relax.

How many hyperbaric oxygen treatments you’ll need

Your treatment plan will be tailored for your wounds and overall health. The team at the Wound Healing Center will also consider your goals and how quickly you’d like to achieve results.

A typical schedule for hyperbaric oxygen therapy is a treatment five days a week for 5-6 weeks. In some situations, people may need two treatments a day, and in others, they may be able to do less.

The total number of sessions will vary based on your type of wound and how well your body responds to therapy. Most of the time, it’s 30-40 sessions but it can be anywhere between 10-60 sessions.

The lasting effects of hyperbaric oxygen therapy

The healing effects of hyperbaric oxygen therapy can last up to 12 months. If, and when, you reach a maintenance phase of treatment, you may only need treatment one or two days per week.

Is hyperbaric oxygen therapy safe?

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is a generally safe treatment. But there can be temporary side effects and very rare complications that are more serious. There are also people who shouldn’t have hyperbaric oxygen therapy because it’s not safe for them.

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy side effects and complications

Side effects are usually mild and temporary. For example, you may feel very tired or lightheaded after therapy.

Rarely, changes in air pressure may cause injury to the eyes, ears, nose and lungs – but these injuries are often temporary and go away on their own. Some people experience seizures because there’s too much oxygen in their central nervous system – but this is also rare. This therapy can also lead to low blood sugar levels in people who use insulin to treat their diabetes.

Times when hyperbaric oxygen therapy may not be safe

Not everyone may be a good candidate for hyperbaric oxygen therapy. For example, it may not be appropriate if you have severe congestive heart failure. It also shouldn’t be used for patients with untreated pneumothorax – that’s why all our patients have lung imaging before treatment.

There are also times when you may need to postpone a therapy session based on a current health situation – It may not be safe if you have a fever, uncontrolled hypertension or have diabetic blood sugar levels that are too high or too low.

After meeting with you, we’ll be able to tell you if hyperbaric oxygen therapy makes sense for you. If it doesn’t, we have other options that might work for you.

How much does hyperbaric oxygen therapy cost?

Oxygen therapy is covered by Medicare and commercial insurers for qualifying conditions once patients have met certain criteria. For example, most insurance companies require that people try other wound care therapies for at least 30 days without significant improvements.

A doctor at the Wound Healing Center will determine if you qualify and work with your insurance company to see if they’ll pay for the therapy.

Get help for your wounds

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is a breath of fresh air for chronic wounds that won’t heal. And the Wound Healing Center at Amery Hospital & Clinic in western Wisconsin have seen incredible results – we’ve used oxygen therapy to successfully treat chronic wounds up to 70 years old.

If you have a wound that won’t heal, it’s time to get help. The Wound Healing Center can help with any nonhealing wound, whether you’ve had it for weeks or years – and you don’t need a referral.

Our wound healing experts will help you find the best therapy for your wound. It could be hyperbaric oxygen therapy or another option such as wound debridement (surgery to remove unhealthy tissue) or bioengineered skin substitutes.

We’re confident we’ll find a solution that works for you – last year we helped 98.6% of our patients heal their wounds!