Mainstreaming hyperbaric oxygen therapy for autism

Brian Field

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy, also called (HBOT), involves breathing pure oxygen while in a sealed chamber that has been pressurized at 1.5 to 3 times normal atmospheric pressure and has been one of the alternative therapies for autism for some time now. Typically used for scuba divers who surface too quickly and are afflicted with “the bends,” the use of HBOT has been reported to improve those suffering from a variety of maladies: everything from arthritis, sports injuries, multiple sclerosis, stroke, cerebral palsy, AIDS….you name it. Because of scarcity of scientifically validated studies, the FDA typically flags its “non endorsement” of HBOT for many of these afflictions and has only issued its approval when it comes to treating decompression sickness, gangrene, brain abscess, air bubbles in the blood, and injuries in which tissues are not getting enough oxygen. This may start to change, at least at it regards autism spectrum disorders, with the study released this week by BMS Pediatrics.

The study, which was a randomized, double-blind controlled study of 62 children found that of the 40 hours of HBOT given over the course of a month, “(30%) in the treatment group were rated as ‘very much improved’ or ‘much improved.” These improvements included being more responsive when others spoke with them, improved eye-contact, increased sociability, and decreased irritability along with a better tolerance for noise. The study saw most significant reports of benefit from children age 5 or more and those with less severe ASD.

Because of its still “alternative” nature of treatment today – this week’s study notwithstanding-- HBOT is typically not covered by insurance – and it’s not inexpensive, ranging from $100-150+ per treatment from individual independent HBOT operators (doctors, centers, etc.) which are widely available. For those that seek to purchase their own HBOT chamber, the soft case chambers can easily run $15,000 with the hard encased ones can be much more expensive. A soft chamber is a chamber that is built of some sort of frame and covered with a soft yet strong fabric shell. They are collapsible, more portable, lighter, cheaper, but cannot endure the pressure levels that a hard chamber can. A hard chamber is made of metal and glass and is not collapsible. It is heavier, not portable, and more expensive but can withstand higher pressure increases.

In regards to training, some of the chambers are very user-friendly and can be operated from instructions provided by the manufacturer of the chamber. These manufacturers also offer live telephone support to operate the machines as well. Of course, for a fee, you can pay to have an expert from the manufacturer come and train you in your home.

While this recent study provides the beginning of scientific validation for HBOT, it should be considered along with other therapies as supplementary, not as a replacement or “cure.”

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