Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) has been an important tool in medical science for over 50 years as a way to help fight infections, poisons, and heart disease. But it’s not until more recently that hyperbaric therapy has found a role in sports medicine, enabling athletes to heal faster from sports injuries.
Among MMA fighters, one of the most outspoken proponents of hyperbaric oxygen therapy has been Urijah Faber, who credits hyperbaric treatments for healing his broken hands quickly. And other fighters have followed Faber’s example by trying hyperbaric chambers or even buying their own, including Cain Velazquez, TJ Dillashaw, and Daniel Cormier.
Oxygen therapy has also been touted by top athletes in other sports, including soccer’s Cristiano Ronaldo, swimming’s Michael Phelps, and pro wrestling’s Daniel Bryan. The training staffs of major-league teams in the NBA, NFL, NHL, and others regularly use hyperbaric therapy for injured players as well.
And HBOT isn’t just for healing anymore. Many of these athletes now make it a regular part of their training routine to speed recovery. When a muscle is worked hard enough it becomes deoxygenated and fills with lactic acid, which is what causes muscle tiredness and pain. A hyperbaric environment should theoretically help flush the muscle with fresh oxygen faster, returning it to full strength.
But is it worth checking out for you?
The Science and Theory Behind Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy
Hyperbaric therapy depends on a principle that chemists call Henry’s Law: if a gas and a liquid are under pressure, the gas will dissolve more easily and the liquid will be able to accept more dissolved gas. For example, soda is bottled under pressure so more carbon dioxide can be forced into the liquid, making it fizzier. In the case of hyperbaric therapy, the gas is pure oxygen and the liquid is your own bloodstream. Breathing oxygen in a high=pressure environment increases your blood’s ability to carry oxygen and improves blood flow to your muscles and organs.
Scientists have been studying the effects of hyperbaric environments on the body ever since the invention of the diving bell. By the 19th century, many spas offered hyperbaric chambers to improve the health of people with heart or lung disorders. In 1928, Dr. Orville Cunningham of Cleveland built a massive hyperbaric “hotel” with 38 rooms in a five-story, 900-ton steel sphere, claiming he could treat even cancer or diabetes with hyperbaric therapy. But outrageous claims like these led to hyperbaric therapy being dismissed as quackery for many years.
In the 1960s, Dutch doctors began experimenting with the use of hyperbaric therapy in combination with a pure oxygen atmosphere, in order to flood the patient’s tissues with extra oxygen. They found that the combination of high pressure and pure oxygen had extremely beneficial results, enabling patients to fight off severe infections and making heart and lung operations easier. Their work has led to HBOT being accepted by mainstream medicine, and allowing us to benefit from it today.
Does Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy Work?
The answer to that is a qualified yes. HBOT is well established as a treatment for several kinds of severe medical conditions. For example, it has been shown to be helpful with severe medical conditions such as gas gangrene,caused by bacteria that need an anaerobic (oxygen-less) environment to survive.
Another condition HBOT has proved useful in is carbon monoxide poisoning. When you’re poisoned with carbon monoxide, it binds to your red blood cells to prevent them from carrying oxygen, causing sickness and possibly death as your organs no longer get enough oxygen. With hyperbaric therapy, your body can be supplied with enough oxygen to keep going until the carbon monoxide is flushed from your system.
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy has also had proven success in helping wounds and injuries heal, as in Faber’s case, although it’s mostly used as a supplement in cases where natural healing isn’t progressing normally due to infections, diabetes, or other problems that might affect circulation in the injured area. Hyperbaric-assisted healing also seems to vary widely in effectiveness based on the type of injury and where it is. It seems more effective treating fractures and damaged ligaments than on muscle and other soft tissue injuries.
As with any new medical treatment, there are always true believers (or scammers) who make overblown claims. If you look around online, you can find people who claim their hyperbaric chambers are effective against cancer, autism, HIV, or diabetes. More seriously, scientists are now exploring the use of hyperbaric oxygen in treating post-traumatic stress disorder caused by brain injuries, allieviating Alzheimer’s disease, and even possible uses in dentistry.
This leads us to the question of exercise recovery. There, the science is a bit less clear, because it’s only recently that athletes and sports physicians have started trying to use oxygen therapy as a routine part of athletic training. Some animal studies have had promising indications for the use of hyperbaric therapy to help muscle recovery.
But on the other hand, a study done a few years ago on a group of eleven Brazilian jujitsu fighters found no measurable benefit in training recovery from hyperbaric oxygen, and suggested that any increased performance the athletes felt might have simply been a placebo effect.
But a study done on eleven people is hardly conclusive, and there will be many more studies done before hyperbaric oxygen is proven effective for sports recovery or not. And until then, the top fighters, who are always looking for any edge they can find, will continue to be at the front of testing new methods to overcome the limitations of the human body.
It’s important to keep in mind that just because something works for a star fighter, it won’t necessarily benefit you or me. At top levels of performance, even a tiny advantage in preparation or recovery can make all the difference, but it may not make a noticeable change for the average gym athlete.
If you’re wondering whether HBOT can benefit you, it’s always important to talk to your doctor first. You should also check with your health insurance provider — many insurers will cover the cost of hyperbaric therapy, but only when it’s used for certain conditions, such as infections or injury.