These are the thoughts from Dr Philip B James, Emeritus Professor of Medicine, University of Dundee, Scotland, UK on the use of Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy.
Mention giving more oxygen as a treatment, rather than a supplement, to doctors and most will appear puzzled, mainly because they will not have been taught in medical school that oxygen is involved in healing. In fact, for many doctors the first word that comes to mind will be ‘toxicity’. Some may raise the spectre of blindness in premature infants given high levels of oxygen in incubators, or problems from giving more oxygen to patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), when both allegations are incorrect.
It is often claimed that many of today’s ailments are due to an excess of oxygen causing damage from “free radicals” and the health food industry makes millions from selling antioxidants. But without free radicals life would not be possible: they are used by every cell in the “signalling” that controls cell activity and excess of free radicals is neutralised by molecules known as scavengers. Most do not know that oxygen radicals are actually generated by white cells to kill microbes: oxygen is the antibiotic of the body.
But it is lack of oxygen, known as ‘hypoxia’ that is dangerous and we all die from it, but it is also linked to inflammation. Inflammation is central to killing microbes and also the removal of damaged cells after injury – the innate immune response. Inflammation reduces oxygen levels in tissues and if normal oxygen levels are not restored, it is allowed to continue and the patient develops a chronic illness, a good example being multiple sclerosis. Giving oxygen, that is, more than is in the air, can break the vicious cycle and is the only way to control inflammation safely; anti inflammatory drugs may be fatal, even aspirin causes several hundred deaths a year in the UK.
The adverse reaction of doctors to the suggestion that we are not using oxygen as a treatment baffles patients but, after qualifying, doctors depend on marketing and suggesting they do not understand something so fundamental as oxygen is confrontational. But add the word “hyperbaric” to oxygen and the reaction is often more dramatic, not least because it seems to suggest that the oxygen is somehow different from that we gain from air. It is not and the grammatically correct term is ‘hyperbaric oxygenation’.
Many doctors are fearful of the technology and a failure to give sufficient oxygen also raises ‘duty of care’ issues because it suggests they are not treating their patients correctly. Most of the very few doctors in the world who use pressure chambers have gained their knowledge in industry; in diving, compressed-air work, aviation and most recently space exploration. However, all doctors use hyperbaric chambers; they fly in them – all passenger aircraft are pressure chambers and all are equipped with oxygen breathing systems.
Yet to be recognized, some of the oxygen we constantly breathe is used to repair injury and wear and tear and giving more extends natural healing. Astonishing research over the last decades has shown that oxygen regulates thousands of our genes – controlling inflammation, programming the growth of new blood vessels in damaged tissue and releasing stem cells, to regulating the p53 gene, which inhibits cancer. Although it ranks alongside the discovery of the structure of DNA, none of this has made headlines. The use of oxygen in treatment must define a new era in medicine as there is no substitute: the gas is unique.