Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy: Does it Work?

Cerebral Palsy Therapies

By John Lehman

Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (HBOT) is commonly used to treat scuba divers with the bends, but recently, the therapy has been used to treat certain types of cerebral palsy, as well. Opinions vary as to whether or not HBOT is an effective treatment for children with cerebral palsy. Some research has shown improvements in motor, verbal and visual skills. However, others feel there isn’t enough conclusive data to recommend it to people with cerebral palsy. We’ll review both sides of the argument to help you decide if HBOT is the right treatment for your child.

What is Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy?

When using HBOT, the patient enters a specialized room or a glass chamber designed for manipulating air pressure. The procedure is painless and patients can wear comfortable clothes, listen to the radio, read or watch television while inside the room. The average session lasts roughly an hour, including decompression once the session has finished.

Once the patient is inside, the room is sealed and the air pressure within is raised to a point where the patient is breathing 100 percent oxygen. In comparison, the air you are breathing right now contains approximately 20 percent oxygen. Increasing the air pressure in this way allows for the lungs to take in three times as much oxygen as they normally would. With more oxygen intake within the body, damaged or disabled cells can be regenerated and potentially given a second chance to become functional again.

Are There Any Risks?

As with any medical procedure, risks do exist when using HBOT. Patients undergoing HBOT may experience barotrauma, a form of ear damage related to changes in pressure. The medical practitioner on site should be able to advise you on how to reduce health issues related to compression and decompression, which should prevent this from occurring. Other issues associated with HBOT include oxygen toxicity, headaches or fatigue. Thankfully, these risks are not very common.

Does it Really Work?

HBOT is a controversial treatment for those with cerebral palsy. Within the last decade, many studies have been conducted and results have varied. In 1999, a study was published by researchers at McGill University to test the effectiveness of HBOT in children with cerebral palsy. The study took 25 children with cerebral palsy, who each underwent 20 sessions of HBOT over a month-long period. Follow-up tests concluded that 67 percent of the children showed improvement in movement and a reduction in muscle spasticity.

However, a study from Canada in the late 1980’s was met with skepticism. The study gathered 473 children afflicted with spastic cerebral palsy and administered 20 one-hour sessions of the therapy to 230 children within the group. Upon reevaluation after six months, roughly 75% of the treated children had improved balance and a lowered frequency of convulsions.

The controversy stems from the remaining 243 children who were grouped into a placebo study. Unlike standard placebo studies, these 243 children were treated with a reduced version of HBOT, using 1.3 atmospheres of pressure as opposed to the 1.7 atmospheres of pressure used for the original 230. This has led some researchers to claim that the study did not use a true placebo. An article written by Pierre Marois provides further details regarding this controversy.

Even today, research is ongoing in regards to the effectiveness of HBOT for cerebral palsy. While more studies are published demonstrating improvement in the quality of life for those treated, others point out that the treatment does not cure cerebral palsy and that the effects of HBOT are not permanent. HBOT can also be a costly procedure and, therefore, may not be available for all families whose children have cerebral palsy. In any case, it’s best to speak to your child’s doctor about HBOT to see if the treatment is worth trying for your child.


Further Reading

FDA Consumer Updates Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy: Don’t Be Misled

Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy – Medscape

PubMed 2012  Effects of Hyperbaric Oxygen on Motor Function of Children with Cerebral Palsy

Was Your Child's CP Preventable?