Learn / Can Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (HBOT) Fast-Track Your Recovery?

Can Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (HBOT) Fast-Track Your Recovery?

Kayla Gill
 October 5th, 2022|   Clinically Reviewed by 
Rajnandini Rathod

The body has an innate ability to heal itself – and some addiction treatment modalities work by enhancing this. The idea behind hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) is that it can boost these self-healing properties to promote a number of positive effects.

While HBOT has long been used to treat decompression sickness, also known as “the bends,” it’s now being used in addiction and behavioral health settings. Some luxury rehabs are introducing this therapy as a way to reduce symptoms of substance use and physical or emotional trauma, and accelerate their clients’ treatment progress as a result. Beyond just treating addiction, HBOT is also used by high-performance athletes and others who simply wish to optimize their health. But is this therapy as effective as treatment centers claim? We’ll take a look at the following:

What Is Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy?

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy was first employed in the early 1900s by the U.S. Navy, who used it to treat deep-sea divers who resurfaced too quickly. It’s since become a well-established treatment for decompression sickness among scuba divers, and since the 1960s, it’s also been used to reverse the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning. Today, HBOT is used to speed recovery from a variety of health problems, including infections, burns, injuries, tissue death, traumatic brain injury, and anemia. 

How HBOT Boosts the Healing Process

During HBOT, patients sit in a specially designed chamber and breathe pure oxygen. While the air we normally breathe contains only 21% oxygen, the oxygen level inside the HBOT chamber is 100%. The chamber is also pressurized to 150-300%, which speeds up the delivery of oxygen to your tissues. As blood oxygen levels increase and the body becomes saturated, more oxygen is delivered to cells and tissues, enhancing their ability to repair themselves. This stimulates the body’s natural healing processes: 

  • blocking the effects of harmful bacteria 
  • encouraging new stem cell growth 
  • strengthening the immune system
  • regenerating connective tissue and blood vessels

After repeated sessions, increased blood oxygen levels are said to be sustained even after receiving HBOT.1 

HBOT’s Uses in Addiction Recovery

Substance use overrides the body’s ability to clear toxins, which accumulate over time. It damages cells and organs, including the brain and digestive organs. The restorative effect of increased blood oxygen levels can help reduce symptoms of substance misuse, such as muscle pain, anxiety and irritability. One study on HBOT’s role in brain damage recovery2 found that it may also reduce symptoms of Korsakoff’s, a syndrome caused vitamin B1 deficiency as a result of alcohol misuse. 

Essentially, HBOT is one way treatment providers can heal the effects of addiction on a cellular level. And because it’s simple, has few, minor side effects, and requires no downtime, some luxury rehabs find it a favorable option for supplementing clients’ treatment experience. Beyond treating symptoms of addiction, HBOT can also improve mood and energy levels, as well as help meet their overall health goals.

How Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy Works 

HBOT is delivered in chambers designed either for individual use or for multiple people to use at a time. For individual treatment, patients lie on a table that slides into a clear tube, similar to an MRI machine. For group sessions, patients sit in a pressurized room and breathe oxygen through masks. In either case, a HBOT technician or trained medical professional is present throughout the session, which typically lasts for 1 to 2 hours.

Once patients are inside, oxygen is pumped into the chamber and the pressure gradually increases. When this happens, it’s common to feel your ears “pop” like they do during an elevation change. During the session, clients can relax with a TV show or a book, or simply rest. Once the time is up, air pressure is slowly lowered to normal levels. If necessary, your clinical team will assess several points including your blood pressure, pulse, and blood glucose for those who have diabetes. Most people find HBOT easy, painless, and even calming. 

How Many Sessions Do I Need? 

How many sessions you need depends on your condition, but you’ll likely need more than 1 to see results. Your treatment team can help you decide how many to attend. Check with your treatment facility to see how many sessions their program includes. This may vary according to your individual treatment plan.

Let’s take a look at how HBOT works at a few rehabs: 

All Points North Lodge, Colorado, USA

All Points North Lodge partners with a local hyperbaric physical therapy clinic, who provides a technician to oversee each session. Their website describes their HBOT process:3 

“After speaking with the tech before your session, you’ll slide into the glass tube that’s equipped with a pad and pillow. Once you’ve settled in, the tech will manage the pressure and oxygen within the chamber. While that happens, you can turn on your favorite Netflix show on the nearby TV, relax, doze off, and enjoy some quiet time alone. During this time, you’ll be under the medical supervision of the HBOT tech and can communicate any questions or concerns you may have at any time throughout the process.”

HBOT at All Points North Lodge is available as an optional add-on to their treatment program, or as a standalone therapy who wish to come to the Lodge solely for this purpose. Their admissions team offers assessments to interested clients to help them determine whether or not they’re a good candidate.

Castle Craig, Edinburgh, Scotland

HBOT at Castle Craig takes place in a 12-person hyperbaric chamber, located onsite and overseen by a local non-profit provider. According to their treatment team, HBOT helps Castle Craig’s clients:4 

  • dramatically reduce opioid withdrawal symptoms 
  • better regulate their emotions
  • improve sleep quality 
  • increase stem cell production by 800%
  • repair damage to organs including the pancreas, liver, and brain 

During the session, clients sit on cushioned seats inside the chamber and watch TV, rest, or read. This service is optional and comes with an additional cost.

Paracelsus Recovery, Zurich, Switzerland

Paracelsus Recovery offers HBOT as one option in the wide array of specialized therapies that make up its bespoke program. According to their team, “Prolonged use of drugs and alcohol can alter the brain’s chemical makeup and ultimately lead to loss of brain function and cell death. Although the body is incredibly self-healing, it may reach a point that it is unable to counteract the effects without help. HBOT treatments can restore life to dormant cells and awaken dormant cells and generate new, healthy cells.” 

They also use HBOT to aid the detox process: “[Hyperbaric oxygen] treatments are also beneficial during detoxification,5 helping the body to more efficiently rid itself of toxic substances.”

Paracelsus offers both single- and multi-person options, and sessions last about 1 hour.

Goodsky Mental Health Retreat, Queensland, Australia

Goodsky Mental Health Retreat utilizes the tissue- and muscle-repairing benefits of HBOT to help pain management6 clients. This service is part of their personalized program for issues such as chronic pain, trauma-related pain, traumatic brain injury, and mental health disorders. 

Is Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy Effective for Treating Addiction?

HBOT not a new therapy, but its application in addiction and mental health treatment has only recently become more common, and more research needs to be done on its effectiveness in this area. However, some studies demonstrate its promise as an effective treatment for those in recovery: 

One study on hyperbaric oxygenation in the treatment of drug and alcohol addiction7 found that, “Exposure to hyperbaric oxygenation had a favorable effect on the patient’s status during sessions and persisted for some time after them… A comparative clinical and psychopathological examination of patients in both groups showed accelerated reduction of psychoneurological and somatovegetative disorders, this bringing about an approximately twofold decrease of treatment duration and preventing the development of complications.”

Another study published in the Journal of Neurotrauma found that HBOT improved overall cognitive functioning8 in veterans with blast-induced traumatic brain injury and PTSD.  

And a study in the neuroscience journal Brain Research to determine the effectiveness of HBOT for opiate withdrawal9 found that “hyperbaric oxygen treatment suppresses withdrawal signs in morphine-dependent mice.” 

Is HBOT Officially Approved? 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) acknowledges that HBOT is effective for treating health problems10 beyond just decompression sickness. But it also warns about false claims that HBOT is a cure-all: 

“If you are considering the use of a HBOT device for yourself or a loved one, be aware that some claims of what it can do are unproven. For example, HBOT devices are not proven to cure cancer, Lyme disease, autism or Alzheimer’s disease.”

The FDA recommends that those considering this therapy first consult their primary care provider. You can also check with the regulatory agency that governs HBOT: “If your health care provider recommends HBOT, the FDA advises that you go to a hospital or facility that has been inspected and is properly accredited by the Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society.”11 

Rehabs use HBOT as an “off-label” therapy. That is, it’s approved for certain conditions, but can also be beneficial for others. And centers who use the therapy to treat addition and mental health-related symptoms say their clients see positive results. According to Paracelsus, “Many people report improved memory, heightened alertness, increased energy, and an overall increase in health and wellbeing after as few as 10 treatments, although more treatments may be required.”

Risks and Side Effects of HBOT 

The side effects of HBOT are generally minimal, and usually affect the eyes, ears, or sinuses due to increased pressure. When they do occur, these effects may include the following:  

  • temporary vision changes resulting from effects on the eye lens  
  • ear issues due to changes in air pressure
  • low blood sugar in people who have diabetes treated with insulin
  • lung collapse (rare)

Most side effects of HBOT are nominal and short-lived, but there is a small risk of a serious condition called oxygen toxicity, which results from too much oxygen in the central nervous system. Johns Hopkins Medicine outlines its risks: 

“In rare, severe cases, a person can get oxygen poisoning.12 This can lead to seizures, fluid in the lungs, lung failure, or other problems. Considering the possible risks and benefits, the decision to use hyperbaric oxygen therapy must be carefully made after a detailed discussion with your healthcare provider.” 

HBOT is not advised for clients who have ear, sinus, or respiratory issues (including colds and congestion), or for pregnant women. 

Making HBOT a Part of Your Recovery

HBOT isn’t for everyone, but if it is right for you, it could potentially complement your recovery process and support your bodily systems as they heal from the effects of addiction. 
To learn how this and other therapies can benefit your recovery journey, visit our searchable directory of luxury rehabs to see program information and reach out to centers directly.

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