Is Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy effective?

In recent years, Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (the same treatment that’s used to cure the “bends” in deep sea divers) has received attention as a possible treatment for autism. While there’s been a fair amount of media interest in the approach – and quite a few practitioners have set up HBOT clinics to provide treatment, the research is inconclusive.

A hyperbaric chamber is a pressurized, oxygen-filled chamber or tube. It’s an effective tool for treating the “bends” (a disorder among SCUBA divers who surface too quickly, causing oxygen bubbles in the bloodstream).

Over the years, medical researchers found a number of additional therapeutic uses for the chambers, which force large quantities of oxygen into the body very quickly. For example, hyperbaric therapy (HBOT) can speed the development of blood vessels, thus improving outcomes for certain types of wounds, gangrene, cardiac illnesses, and other conditions. Typically, HBOT is conducted in a hospital setting, in a large non-portable chamber, under high pressure.

In recent years, some doctors theorized thatHBOT could improve symptoms of autism by increasing oxygen intake and thus reducing inflammation and hypo-perfusion (lack of oxygen) in the brain. Of course, there is no agreement within the scientific community that inflammation or lack of oxygen cause autism – or are even generally associated with autism.

To investigate the possibility that HBOT could treat symptoms of autism, Dr. Daniel Rossignol has begun a series of studies. Those studies are still in the very earliest stages. The most that can be said is that they offer some support for continuing, larger studies.

Despite the lack of scientific evidence for HBOT as a useful treatment for autism, anecdotal evidence and word-of-mouth have made this an increasingly interesting option to parents of children with autism. “Home” oxygen chambers and expensive courses of HBOT treatment are being offered by various practitioners with anecdotal evidence of positive outcomes.

Because this treatment has not been scientifically verified, it seems premature to get involved. According to Rossignol, there are risks of side effects when using HBOT, including ear pain, reversible myopia (nearsightedness), and seizures. If parents do decide to consider HBOT before more research is completed, however, it makes sense to do so in the context of a formal autism clinic or children’s hospital – both to ensure proper methodology and to reduce the risk of side effects.

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