You might have heard about Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (HBOT) being used in the healing of chronic wounds and severe burns, but did you know that it has become a valuable part of the training and healing regimens of college and professional athletes around the world?
What is HBOT and how does it work?
HBOT is a medical treatment in which a person is exposed to increased atmospheric pressure inside a chamber (or other delivery system). The increase in pressure allows more oxygen to reach the cells of the body.
According to Henry’s Law of Physics, an increase in atmospheric pressure allows more gas to be dissolved into any given liquid. Henry’s law is displayed in every can of soda. When soda is canned at the factory, it is put under pressure so that more carbon dioxide can be dissolved into the soda causing it to be carbonated. When the can is opened, the pressure is released. Without the pressure to keep the gas dissolved, the soda will become flat in a few hours.
This same principal applies to oxygen and plasma, the liquid part of the blood. When the body is under pressure, more oxygen will dissolve into the plasma, cerebral fluid, and synovial fluid than if it were not under pressure. Not only does this increase the amount of available oxygen to cell tissue, it allows oxygen to reach areas of the body that would normally be difficult to reach.
When you think of it another less scientific way, it makes perfect sense, really. Mild HBOT, which delivers oxygen under pressure, simulates the effect a person experiences when they breathe air at higher elevations where there is less oxygen in the air. Under these conditions the body responds by making new red blood cells to compensate for the lower oxygen intake and the additional blood cells deliver more oxygen throughout the cells of the body. HBOT, which can be delivered in several different ways from self-contained chambers, to sleeping canopies, and masks that can be used while exercising, allows an individual to receive the same benefits of breathing at high altitudes, but in the comfort of the clinic, training room or even at home.
How does HBOT aid in healing after athletic injuries?
According to Dr. Rebecca Boyd, Family Practice Physician, of Forward Health Solutions in Hattiesburg, HBOT provides the optimal environment for the body to carry out vital cell processes, increasing its capacity to heal itself.
“We have patients with a number of different kinds of sports injuries that definitely benefit from HBOT treatment,” notes Dr. Boyd. “From muscle contusions and ankle sprains to delayed-onset muscle soreness, it is effective in facilitating soft-tissue healing, including head injuries. It is also beneficial during pre- and post-operative periods, because of its ability to reduce swelling.”
Forward Health Solutions offers its patients the option of having HBOT at the clinic by appointment, but they also have portable HBOT units available to be rented and used at a patient’s home.
“Many of our patients benefit from more frequent treatments and find renting a chamber for use at home can actually save them money,” notes Dr. Boyd. “When patients rent a chamber, they are able to use the chamber as frequently as they need, avoid the expense and time of traveling to and from the clinic and, for certain patients, it helps them decide if they would like to eventually purchase a chamber. Numerous people now have and use chambers in their homes as they have discovered how beneficial the therapy can be for their overall health. Many professional athletes also have chambers at home and some even travel with their chambers.”
How does HBOT benefit the athlete in training?
The other part of the HBOT story is how it benefits athletes in training. Well-Being spoke with Jim Phyfer, competitive cycler and member of the Herring Gas team, Mississippi’s premier cycling team for over 25 years.
Jim has an altitude training system, which simulates the effect of breathing oxygen at elevations up to 12,000 feet above sea level, which he uses at home on a daily basis. According to the manufacturer of this system, there are several beneficial effects for the heart, lungs, circulatory system, and muscles:
• Increase in blood flow to the lungs, promoting oxygen exchange
• Increase of the permeability of the lungs to oxygen
• Increase in the number of red blood cells able to carry oxygen
• Increase in enzymes that facilitate release of oxygen from red blood cells into muscles
• Increase in capillary density in muscles
• Increase in the number of mitochondria (the energy-producing structures inside muscle cells)
According to Jim, he definitely has seen an increase in his hematocrit levels since using the altitude training system. Hematocrit is a measure of the proportion of blood volume that is occupied by red blood cells. The higher your hematocrit, the more oxygen can be delivered per volume of blood. As you generate new red blood cells, your hematocrit will rise.
“Using the system has helped boost my hematacrit level from 42 to 48, which for an endurance athlete is huge!” Jim adds. “The main issue is getting oxygen to your muscles and by depriving your body of oxygen you create more red blood cells so they are more easily used to fuel your muscles. It has a tremendous effect in increasing your athletic performance. More red blood cells mean more speed, endurance, and power.”