Oxygen is crucial to life: the air we breathe, the water we drink, the ground we walk on.
Harnessed properly, it also has the power to heal. Inside Regional One Health’s Wound Care Center, patients with a vast array of conditions are benefitting from that thanks to the only multi-place hyperbaric oxygen therapy chamber in the state of Tennessee.
“Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is a wonderful treatment for a very diverse group of conditions,” said Dr. Tony Alleman, medical director for wound care and hyperbaric oxygen therapy. “In many cases, it offers a patient their best or even their only chance at recovery.”
In a sense, hyperbaric oxygen therapy is a state-of-the-art medical technology that works on an old-fashioned principle: that the body has the capacity to heal itself.
Alleman, who is board certified in undersea and hyperbaric medicine, said the goal of the therapy is to spark the body’s natural healing processes.
“After a certain number of treatments, we can actually grow new blood vessels, and that extra blood flow can help heal wounds and other conditions,” he said.
Alleman said patients go on a series of treatments called “dives” in the Wound Care Center’s hyperbaric oxygen chamber. The chamber, which looks like a giant submarine, is the only facility of its kind in the Mid-South and can treat 12 patients at the same time.
During a dive, the body is exposed to 100 percent oxygen under pressure. Each dive lasts around two hours, and patients typically receive treatment five days a week over several weeks.
The therapy itself is painless and non-invasive – patients read, watch TV, even sleep during their dives – but the impact is significant.
“When we first assess our patients with wounds, we do a test that checks oxygen levels in the blood supply in the affected area. If the level is below 40, the chances of healing are unlikely,” Alleman said. “We have patients come in at a 10. In the chamber, we can get the levels to over 1,000, and the effect lasts even after they leave the chamber.”
With more oxygen in their bloodstream, patients begin to develop new blood vessels. More oxygenated blood can flow to injured tissues, Alleman explained, which facilitates healing.
He said many people are surprised to learn the vast range of conditions he treats in the hyperbaric chamber.
People are most familiar with hyperbaric medicine for scuba divers who suffer from “the bends,” or decompression sickness, a painful condition that occurs when a diver surfaces too fast, trapping bubbles of gas in their body. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy, which replaces nitrogen with oxygen to squeeze down the bubbles, is the only known treatment.
But divers aren’t the largest patient group for Alleman.
“One of the main issues we treat in our chamber is diabetic foot ulcers,” he said. “These wounds form due to poor circulation and nerve damage, and those same factors can make them very difficult to heal.”
He also sees patients who have undergone radiation for cancer.
Radiation therapy can cause scarring and narrowing of blood vessels in the treated area, and soft tissue and bones may be damaged or even die. If a patient needs surgery in the same area, the tissue damage can make it hard to heal incisions, skin flaps, or skin grafts.
In fact, many stubborn wounds benefit from hyperbaric oxygen, including burns, crush injuries and other traumatic injuries, and necrotizing infections.
Alleman added hyperbaric oxygen is not just a wound care technology. It can treat carbon monoxide poisoning, infections such as osteomyelitis and gas gangrene, severe anemia, arterial insufficiencies, and even sudden hearing and vision loss.
For patients, the impact on health and quality of life is significant.
Marvin Richardson, who was treated for vocal cord damage due to radiation said, “If it wasn’t for the chamber, I don’t know if I’d be speaking today. I’m very appreciative, because my life was on the line; my voice was on the line. I’m grateful to be back to normal.”
Alleman said that getting patients back to normal is his goal for every patient he treats in the chamber.
“We help patients maintain the best quality of life possible. When a wound isn’t healing, they are at risk of declining health, infection, and in some cases amputation,” he said. “With hyperbaric oxygen, we get consistent results for patients who literally tried everything else without success.”
For more about hyperbaric oxygen therapy and Regional One Health’s Wound Care Center, visit www.regionalonehealth.org/firefighters-burn-center/wound-care-and-hbo/
Regional One Health provides accessible, efficient, quality care for the Mid-South. Its main campus in downtown Memphis features comprehensive medical services and centers of excellence in trauma, burn, NICU and high-risk obstetrics. Its east campus provides specialty care and other outpatient services, and the system offers six primary care offices.