Breath of fresh air for the ill
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is being used to treat a wide number of ailments The therapy has captured the public imagination, writes Sylvia Thompson
One of the intriguing aspects of the history of conventional medicine is how new scientific discoveries often result in new therapies superseding other established therapies of the time.
Such was the case with hyperbaric oxygen therapy. It was a treatment that gained prominence in the late 19th and early 20th centuries - first for decompression illness (suffered by divers and known as the bends) and then to enhance wound healing during wartime. But once antibiotics were introduced, hyperbaric oxygen therapy was pushed aside as a valued tool in the treatment of infectious diseases.
However, in the past 20 years or so, there has been a renewed interest in hyperbaric oxygen therapy - not only as the standard treatment for the bends and to speed up the healing of deep tissue wounds but also for such conditions as diabetic ulcers, multiple sclerosis and brain injuries.
In the past few years in particular, the therapy has captured the public imagination in this part of the world because well-known sports stars such as footballers David Beckham and Wayne Rooney and rugby player Brian O'Driscoll have used hyperbaric oxygen therapy to help them recover faster from injuries.
"Surface wounds, crush injuries and fractures will heal 75 per cent quicker with hyperbaric oxygen therapy in the average person and 60 per cent faster in older people," says Des Quigley who, with his wife Ali, runs the so-called National Hyperbaric Centre in Great Strand Street, Dublin.
As the only full-time operational therapeutic centre in Ireland at present, the privately run centre receives patients from some Dublin hospitals and GP-referrals for other patients who have heard of the therapy's benefits. Prospective patients need a doctor's prescription to have oxygen therapy.
Angela Dillon is one such patient. On holidays a few years ago in Italy, she was hospitalised with deep vein thrombosis. "My leg deteriorated. The skin came off and it became ulcerated. I was back in hospital for weeks at a time once home in Ireland and became very ill," she says.
While in hospital, Dillon also contracted MRSA and became quite depressed about her illness. "My daughter discovered hyperbaric oxygen therapy in the United States and my GP agreed to my having it at the centre in Dublin on the condition that I went to see him every day during the treatment. I had between 40 and 50 sessions in total over 10 weeks or so and after about the eighth treatment I started to see an improvement."
Dillon is so pleased with the fullness of her recovery due to hyperbaric oxygen therapy that she has become an active campaigner to have the treatment more widely available in Ireland. "It's non-invasive, pure oxygen. It's a treatment that will save the HSE money and improve people's health. It will become a patient-driven treatment in the future," she says.
Conditions that are considered to benefit from hyperbaric oxygen therapy include carbon monoxide poisoning, osteomyelitis and osteonecrosis (bacterial infections of the bone), crush injuries and other deep tissue wounds.
In Britain many multiple sclerosis patients have opted for treatment in hyperbaric oxygen chambers to stabilise their condition. In the US, there is anecdotal evidence that children with brain injuries - either congenital or due to accidents - have shown improvements following hyperbaric oxygen therapy.
"There are a number of medical conditions - carbon monoxide poisoning, radiation burns and osteomyelitis - which hyperbaric oxygen therapy is of benefit and there are lots of controversial uses of the therapy which have not been proven," says Dr Noel Flynn, consultant anaesthetist at the Galway University Hospital and medical director of the hyperbaric oxygen chamber in Galway University Hospital.
"We have been dealing with diving emergencies and carbon monoxide poisoning with full medical supervision for the past 30 years. This is the National Hyperbaric Oxygen Centre and I object to a privately run centre calling itself the National Hyperbaric Centre," he says.
Flynn says the HSE is providing funding for a new hyperbaric oxygen chamber in Galway. "We are currently tendering for a new multi-person chamber and establishing a specialised team. We'd be happy to extend the range of conditions we treat then with permission from the HSE," he says.
On a recent Nationwide programme on RTÉ television, Elaine Cassidy, professor of ophthalmology at the Royal Victoria Eye and Ear Hospital, Dublin, spoke of her "great surprise" following the recovery of a young patient from a serious eye condition after treatment with hyperbaric oxygen therapy.
"He went from being legally blind to being able to read newspaper print," she said. The patient had a hereditary form of optic neuropathy, for which there was no recognised treatment. Cassidy added: "Spontaneous improvements can only be ruled out by doing clinical trials."
Anaesthetist at St Vincent's Hospital, Dublin, Dr Tony Healy, believes there should be at least two multi-person hyperbaric oxygen chambers in public teaching hospitals in Ireland. "There should be one on the west coast and one on the east coast. It is essential that each has a medical director who can set the correct protocols [ ie number of sessions and concentrations of oxygen at which pressures] for patients with different conditions," he explains.