Wound care

Stubborn wounds and tissue can heal better with hyperbaric oxygen therapy

A hospital technician looking into a clear tube used for hyperbaric oxygen therapy
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy has been available to patients in Rockford since 2008.

When Don Griffin of Oregon, Illinois was diagnosed with bleeding in his bladder — the result of radiation that damaged normal tissue during his prostate cancer treatment several years ago — his urologist suggested a form of treatment at UW Health.

“They said that my bladder bleed made me a good candidate for something called hyperbaric oxygen treatment,” says Don, a retired 72-year-old with a distinguished career in engineering and management. “I heard ‘hyperbaric’ and thought, is this going to feel like scuba diving? Initially, I had a little hesitation, but the staff took the time to answer all my questions. I went ahead and thankfully, my bleeding stopped not long after treatment began.”

The theory behind hyperbaric oxygen therapy is simple: some wounds or damaged tissues need extra oxygen to heal properly. Because the air we breathe is only 21% oxygen, the therapy provides patients an opportunity to breathe pure oxygen. Moreover, hyperbaric oxygen therapy delivers the oxygen at 2-to-2 1/2 times the normal atmospheric pressure.

The combination of 100% oxygen and elevated air pressure increases the amount of dissolved oxygen in the blood by 10- to 15-fold, infusing the body with far more oxygen than it normally receives.

The most common reasons patients seek hyperbaric oxygen therapy are to help with:

  • Tissue that was damaged during radiation treatment (such as Don’s case)

  • Diabetic foot wounds that don’t heal on their own

  • Certain bone infections, known as chronic refractory osteomyelitis

“Hyperbaric oxygen therapy has been used in health care settings since the 1950s or ‘60s,” says Michelle Fuller, a UW Health nurse practitioner. “We have offered it at UW Health in Rockford since 2008.”

Many patients with stubborn diabetic foot wounds also may be good candidates for hyperbaric oxygen therapy. Roger Coffman, a 90-year-old former Rockford, Illinois police officer who has lived with diabetes for more than 30 years, speaks highly of his experiences with the treatment.

“I go in for regular wound care, but there have been times when a wound on my foot just won’t heal or close up. Having the hyperbaric treatment helped the foot heal much better,” says Roger. “I even feel younger — more like 65 rather than 90.” Roger’s wife, Gwen, also benefited several years ago from the treatment, which helped heal tissue that was affected by radiation during her treatment for breast cancer.

“We’ve been on the family plan,” says Gwen.

Staff focuses on making every patient comfortable

Carrie Wright, director of the Hyperbaric Clinic at UW Health, says patients are closely monitored during each treatment session, which involves lying in a clear acrylic tube that is eight feet long and about three feet wide.

“Some patients need a little time to adjust, and the pressure change can make your ears feel full like in an airplane,” Wright says. “We help patients feel comfortable. You also have room to move your arms and legs, so you are not lying perfectly still.”

Each daily session lasts about two hours, although patients typically spend about 2 1/2 hours at the clinic from start to finish. Patients come every day, Monday through Friday for anywhere between 20 and 100 sessions, although 30 to 60 sessions is most common, Wright says.

“It’s a big-time commitment,” she adds. “It may not be practical for everyone.”

Most hyperbaric oxygen therapy patients have done well, says Michelle Fuller, a nurse practitioner who is a supervisor of the program.

“We typically see the wounds improve or heal and drainage volume decrease with treatment,” Fuller says.

Don Griffin, the man whose bladder bleed stopped, says his treatment was provided with the highest quality of care.

“Everything was explained thoroughly and professionally,” he says. “They also accommodated my schedule when my treatments would have conflicted with other personal commitments. I would recommend the hyperbaric team at UW Health to anyone who would require this treatment.”