Our bodies use oxygen in a number of ways, including healing. Breathing alone provides about 20 percent of the oxygen our bodies need.
But today, doctors can ramp up that amount to help people recover from the most debillitating injuries and illnesses with hyperbaric oxygen therapy.
It's hard to believe Michael "Bean" Black survived his horrific car crash in 2011.
"An 18-wheeler made me turn, so I turned into the median, hit the median and flipped nine times and I was ejected from the car," he said, describing what happened.
He was thrown 40 feet from the vehicle and landed on his head. Black's grandmother, Mary Orr, said even the doctors had given up hope.
"After three days the doctor says we're going to take him off life support, and we said, 'It's not going to happen,'" she recalled.
"While he was in the coma we put up a Bean's Recovery Group on Facebook. We asked everybody that we knew for prayers and they passed it on to everybody that they knew, and we had prayers from all over the world," she continued. "And I know that's what brought him out of the coma and we could bring him home."
When Black arrived home to Dallas he still suffered from severe injuries, including brain damage. But his condition improved after he started receiving hyperbaric oxygen therapy.
"He couldn't talk hardly," Orr recalled. "He'd say things but you'd be, 'What?' And they started him in the hyperbaric chamber and it cleared him up amazingly. We just couldn't believe it. So we just kept bringing him back."
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy involves breathing 100 percent pure oxygen inside a pressurized chamber for about an hour to 90 minutes per session.
Dr. Alfred Johnson, who directs the Hyperbaric Centers of Texas in Richardson
"With that pressure being present then the blood vessels are fully saturated with oxygen so that the tissues get 10 to 25 times more oxygen, depending on what the pressure is," he explained. "Therefore you get an increase in the healing process and the cell recovery process."
Black said the therapy made a big difference.
"When I first started, I would come here in a wheelchair and have to be wheeled in and get out to use the chamber," he said. "Then I moved to a walker; then I moved to a cane. It helped my muscles because my muscles are really tense, and it relaxed them."
After the first 40 treatments, Black went back for 40 more a few months later.
Costs vary depending on the provider from as little as $100 an hour on up. Insurance and Medicare sometimes offer coverage, depending on the condition being treated.
Insurance companies can reimburse for hyperbaric oxygen therapy for the treatment of traumatic brain injuries, like Black's.
"When I first started, I had a bad case of insomnia and couldn't sleep," he recalled. "And every time I came here and got done with the chamber I'd go home and fall asleep."
"My memory has gotten a lot better," he added. "Like, I would do something in the morning, by afternoon I'd forget what I'd done. Now I have a pretty good memory."
Dallas businessman John Herrick said the therapy is easy and has helped him sharpen his focus.
"They just put you in this nice glass tube and you get to watch TV, and your ears kind of pop because they put you under pressure," he explained. "It's just like breathing regular air, there's no difference."
Consumers can purchase or rent portable hyperbaric oxygen chambers, but they typically deliver far less oxygen and pressure than industrial-grade ones.
Conditions treated with Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy include:
- Cerebral Palsy
- Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
- Closed Head Injury
- Migraine Headaches
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Near Drowning
- Parkinson's Syndrome
- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
- Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy
- Rheumatoid Arthritis
- Sports Injury
- Traumatic Brain Injury
Johnson said stroke patients can have improved quality of life.
"So you see people having trouble walking, they have much better coordination. They have more strength and many people are able to get back to normal functioning or close to normal functioning post-stroke," he said.
He said he's witnessed progress for people with autism, as well.
"We see the most response from people with speech problems because there's some deprivation of oxygen in the brain. The brain cells aren't working quite right with speech," he explained. "And they're able to help with speech problems and recover."
Road to Recovery
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy may not be for everyone. But today, Michael Black is in far better shape than he or his family ever dreamed possible since his near-fatal car accident.
They believe this therapy has a lot to do with his recovery, so they plan to stick with it and hopefully see even more improvement.