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Deep-sea divers have long known the benefits of hyperbaric oxygen treatment (HBOT) -- a method for efficient delivery of pure oxygen -- to treat those with the 'bends,' a condition that can occur as a diver rises to the surface and the changing pressure causes nitrogen gas bubbles to form in the lungs, tissues and bloodstream, leading to a potentially lethal blood flow blockage. Today, doctors use HBOT to treat a number of other conditions -- carbon monoxide and cyanide poisoning, wounds that aren't healing properly, serious burns, soft tissue and bone infections and certain complications from radiation therapy. While everyone agrees about the usefulness of HBOT for these conditions, there is another usage that is generating much debate -- the practice of using HBOT to address neurological problems, including brain damage from strokes.
HBOT administers 100% oxygen (versus the 21% that is in the air we breathe) in a chamber with an air pressure considerably greater than the air around us. The pressure dramatically raises the number of oxygen molecules entering the bloodstream -- by as much as 2,000%. The vastly increased oxygen level allows the oxygen to reach bone and tissue that it normally can't reach, where it may accelerate healing. The oxygen also can enhance functioning of white blood cells, the infection fighters, which may improve aspects of immune system function. It is the ability to heal tissue that has neurologists evaluating HBO for use with stroke patients. Harry T. Whelan, MD, medical director of the Froedtert & Medical College Hyperbaric Medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin, is "