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St. Petersburg Times, John Pendygraft/AP
Lainie Armstrong and her son Chance lie in a hyperbaric chamber. Armstrong hopes the
sessions will help with developmental disabilities associated with the fact that Chance was
born three months early.

Autism Is Latest Condition Targeted With Hyperbaric Chamber

March 16, 2009 12:01 PM
by Emily Coakley
Hyperbaric chambers have produced some benefits in people with autism, according to a new, small study. It could be the newest application of the versatile therapy.

Autism Targeted With Old Technology

A new study suggests that children with autism show improved social interaction after spending 40 hours in a hyperbaric chamber. The study, which was published in BMC Pediatrics, involved 62 children being treated at six sites around the United States.

According to the BBC, “30% in the treatment group were rated by doctors as ‘very much improved’ or ‘much improved’ compared with 8% of those in the control group.”

The children received 24 percent oxygen at a pressure slightly higher than normal. Children with cerebral palsy and fetal alcohol syndrome have also shown benefits after hyperbaric chamber treatment, according to the BBC.
Dan Rossignol, the study’s lead author, told the BBC he was initially skeptical of using hyperbaric medicine, but his two autistic sons seemed improved after the treatments.

“We’re certainly not talking about a cure, we’re talking about improvements in behaviour, improving certain functions and quality of life,” Rossignol said, adding that the next step was to determine which children would respond best to the treatment.

The study’s critics, according to the Los Angeles Times, say the study was funded by hyperbaric chamber manufacturers, and that Rossignol is a major promoter of such a treatment.

The New York Times recently reviewed the current state of hyperbaric treatments. Author Jane Brody notes that, while hyperbaric medicine is used in a wide range of conditions, it is only approved for reimbursement by Medicare for 11 conditions. The Times quoted a report in the journal Emergency Medicine: “A persistent criticism of hyperbaric medicine regards the lack of large-scale, multicenter, randomized studies for several of the primary indications."

The study authors add, "Data are conflicting, particularly on carbon monoxide poisoning, crush injuries and some soft tissue infections. Some trials demonstrate benefit while others show no difference.”

Background: Hyperbaric chamber history and other uses

The idea of using increased atmospheric pressure to help patients dates back to the 1600s, when a man named Henshaw built a sealed chamber where he could change the pressure with a series of bellows, according to Quackwatch.

The general public became familiar with hyperbaric chambers in 1986, when photos were released of singer Michael Jackson, then at the height of his popularity, laying down in one of the chambers.   News reports claimed that Jackson planned to sleep in a hyperbaric chamber in the hope that it would enable him to live to age 150.  Jackson later denied these reports.

The University of Southern California has a hyperbaric chamber on California’s Catalina Island. It is staffed at all hours, every day of the year to treat diving accidents such as air embolisms or decompression sickness. The site has a video that shows the chamber in action.

When in the hyperbaric chamber, people may breathe 100 percent oxygen; outside, oxygen makes up only 21 percent of the air in the atmosphere. The pressure helps the body dissolve the oxygen, according to WCCO television in Minneapolis, which in 2006 explained how hyperbaric chambers work.

The director of hyperbaric medicine at Hennepin County Medical Center told the station that when people have inhaled smoke after a fire, carbon monoxide in their blood poses a danger. The chamber, she said, gets rid of the carbon monoxide while giving the body oxygen.

In its long history, hyperbaric medicine has been used for many maladies. A recent Times of London article, for example, explained that Russian clinics have been using chambers to help alcoholics detoxify for more than a decade. This month, doctors at a Scottish clinic are scheduled to start a study “to establish whether stem cells are mobilised by HBOT and if there is a corresponding improvement in liver function,” the paper said.

Elsevier recently published “Physiology and Medicine of Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy,” which is available on its Web site.

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