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THE HEALTHY SKEPTIC

Portable hyperbaric chambers: An expensive folly?

They can alleviate altitude sickness, but there's no evidence they live up to claims of slowing or reversing aging and treating severe autism and cerebral palsy.

July 13, 2009|Chris Woolston

Over the years, Michael Jackson has graced more tabloid covers than any other celebrity, the ghost of Elvis included. One memorable tabloid photo from the mid-1980s showed Jackson lying peacefully in a hyperbaric chamber, presumably part of his plan to stay young forever.

Perhaps inspired by that iconic image, many health seekers have climbed into hyperbaric chambers of their own. The prospect of slowing or reversing aging is one big draw. Others hope the little extra air pressure and oxygen a chamber provides can cure their cancer or some other chronic disease. In recent years, a growing number of parents have sought hyperbaric therapy to treat their children's autism or cerebral palsy.

Portable hyperbaric chambers are showing up in spas and alternative health clinics across the country. You can even rent or buy one for home use and climb into your pressurized haven as often as you like.

Summit to Sea manufactures three home-use hyperbaric chambers. The Shallow Dive -- 28 inches wide and 7 feet long -- sells for almost $7,000. (The company's tag line is "Affordable hyperbaric chambers.") It comes with a compressor that fills the chamber with filtered room air to a pressure of 1.2 ATA (short for atmospheres absolute).

The Dive, which sells for nearly $8,000, is the same size as the Shallow Dive but can reach a pressure of 1.3 ATA. The Grand Dive -- 40 inches wide and more than 9 feet long -- sells for almost $14,000. Like the Dive, it can be pressurized to 1.3 ATA.

The Flexi-Lite portable chamber sold by HyperbaricsRx is 34 inches wide and almost 9 feet long. It can be yours for a bit more than $17,000. Like the Dive and the Grand Dive, it provides an air pressure of 1.3 ATA. Users can breathe filtered room air or 100% oxygen delivered through a mask attached to a tank.

Such chambers are essentially souped-up versions of Gamow bags, inflatable bags used by mountain climbers to treat altitude sickness. The bags can be purchased for a few thousand dollars or rented by the day in mountain-climbing .

These portable hyperbaric chambers (also called mild hyperbaric chambers) are far different from the rigid, high-pressure devices found in some hospitals. Hospital chambers can provide 100% oxygen at pressures reaching 6 ATA or more.

The claims

The website for American Medical Aesthetics Corp., a clinic that offers hyperbaric treatment at its offices in Santa Monica and Irvine, claims that it "works as a potent anti-aging therapy" that energizes the body while clearing away toxins. The site also claims that "children with severe autism, ADD and even cerebral palsy . . . see remarkable progress in muscle control and brain function."

The Summit to Sea website says that "many people all over the world have used hyperbaric chambers . . . to treat a variety of conditions from autism to strokes to wound healing." The company, however, doesn't claim to treat any illness other than altitude sickness.

HyperbaricsRx claims that hyperbaric therapy "increases the body's ability to fight infections . . . and improves the rate of healing." Laura Betts, a trainer and technician with the company, says the therapy fights aging by stimulating collagen in skin and eliminating toxins.

The bottom line

Oxygen may be vital for life, but as an anti-aging remedy it's a bust, says Dr. Neil B. Hampson, a hyperbaric medicine specialist at Seattle's Virginia Mason Hospital and past president of the Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society. "If anything, oxygen accelerates aging."

As he explains, oxygen encourages the formation of free radical compounds that damage cells over the years. "We provide 5,000 or 6,000 hyperbaric treatments every year, and I have no perception that any of those people are looking younger."

Hospital-based hyperbaric treatment has more than a dozen proven uses, Hampson says. Doctors prescribe it for victims of carbon monoxide poisoning and deep-sea divers with the "bends." Hyperbaric treatments can speed healing of wounds caused by poor circulation, including those of diabetics.

But there's a big difference between hospital-based chambers and the low-pressure models offered at spas and sold for home use, Hampson said, adding that although portable chambers definitely help treat altitude sickness, there's no evidence that they live up to any other promises.

Claims that hyperbaric oxygen can treat autism or cerebral palsy are especially unfounded and unethical, says Dr. Jake Freiberger, an attending physician at the Center for Hyperbaric Medicine & Environmental Physiology at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C. "Some people are desperate," he says. "They are vulnerable to being manipulated."

Betts says that "there are thousands of families using [hyperbaric chambers] for autism, and they are seeing results." She says she knows of one autistic child who started speaking after 110 treatments.

Though hyperbaric treatments are generally safe, especially when they're filled with room air, there is always a risk when oxygen tanks are involved, Freiberger says. In May, a 4-year-old Italian boy and his grandmother were severely burned by an explosion in a hyperbaric chamber at an alternative health clinic in Florida. The grandmother died the day after the explosion. The boy, who was receiving treatment for cerebral palsy, died a little more than one month later, with burns over 90% of his body.

Even if it doesn't explode, "oxygen can be toxic," Freiberger says. "In high doses, it can damage the eyes and the lungs. It's not a trivial thing."

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