Illustration by Mark Weber
Riley Poor had been on bedrest for months trying to heal a pressure sore. He had grown so accustomed to the nerve pain and spasms he dealt with that they were beginning to seem normal. That’s when his partner, Andrea Peruzzi, suggested he look into hyperbaric oxygen therapy. “All I really knew about it was that Michael Jackson had apparently slept in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber,” he says. “I was a little bit skeptical because there is so much woo-woo type crap out there.”
But feeling like he had tried pretty much everything else and had nothing to lose, Poor, a C5-6 quad who lives in Portland, Oregon, went ahead and signed up for 13 hours in the closest chamber he could find, about 30 minutes north in Vancouver, Washington. “Logistically it was challenging because it was expensive and far away, but once I got on the bandwagon, and as I got to hour nine or 10 of therapy, I started realizing that I had a dramatic reduction in nerve pain and my spasms were so much better,” he recalls. On top of that, the wounds that had refused to heal started to get smaller and soon went away. “It was really bizarre, and it was amazing.”
A Twist on Tradition
Traditional hyperbaric oxygen treatment has been used for many years to heal wounds, help with decompression sickness and deal with infections, but what Poor and a growing number of people are turning to is a variation, often called “mild” hyperbaric oxygen therapy. In traditional HBOT, recipients sit or lie in large metallic chambers, where the air pressure is as much as three times normal air pressure, and breathe pure oxygen. These chambers can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and are generally only found in hospitals. Mild HBOT chambers, like the one Poor used, are generally soft-sided, filled with ambient air instead of medical grade oxygen and can’t attain the same high levels of pressurization. Many users breathe concentrated oxygen through a mask while in the chamber. Mild chambers start as low as $3,999 and are available for home use. There are even models that wheelchair users can roll directly into. Both forms of HBOT require a medical prescription, but while traditional HBOT is usually covered by insurance, mild HBOT is not.
The mainstream medical profession has supported the value of traditional HBOT with thousands of clinical studies, but it tends to eschew mild HBOT and question its value. Poor understands the skepticism but swears by the results. “I do believe that on a molecular level it’s definitely giving your body an advantage to heal and improve inflammation,” he says. “It’s made a huge change to my life. It’s given me more bandwith to be active and get out on my bike and actually have the strength and energy to spend more time in the chair. It helps give me the little boost to get ahead.”
“I think of it as like drinking water,” says Poor. “If there was some super-hydrated water where you only had to drink one glass a day and you were good to go, it’s kind of like that with oxygen. Its undeniable, you wake up refreshed.”
On top of added energy, reduced nerve pain and healed wounds, Poor says his edema and hemorrhoids are both noticeably improved. Peruzzi, a licensed acupuncturist with a background in oriental medicine, says the undiscerning focus of HBOT is one of its strengths. “That’s the thing about hyperbarics, it’s not choosing what tissue to act on — it’s a very systemic treatment,” she says. “So all of the tissues of your body are getting more oxygen, having less inflammation, getting more blood flow, healing. There are all these positive side effects that people comment on that they didn’t really anticipate.”
Peruzzi recommends different treatment protocols depending on what her clients are hoping to accomplish. She wants clients to build frequency and duration, recommending five days on and two days off of 60-90 minute treatments for those who can do it. For chronic conditions she recommends around 40 hours a month.
Relief, at a High Cost
Poor was so sold on the benefits that he purchased his own unit, a Vitaeris 320. At around $22,000, it didn’t come cheap, but he decided the benefits of more regular usage and not having to pay the $200-plus per session most clinics charge were worth it.
Less than two years later, Poor estimates he has spent close to 180 hours in the chamber and says he feels better than ever. He purchased a second chamber secondhand last year and his original chamber now resides in the health and wellness clinic that Peruzzi runs. She had never offered mild HBOT before Poor started using it but has found the treatments to be a perfect fit for her clinic. She explains that the therapy’s focus on nourishing the blood and improving blood flow coincides with the tenets of acupuncture and the oriental medicine she studied. She learned about the treatment potential of hyperbaric oxygen in her studies, but she didn’t pursue it until it became relevant in her personal life and her relationship with Poor.
“I’ve never seen a person in more pain. His experience of living was pure hell. We couldn’t figure out how to help him and he was going everywhere and spending all this money — acupuncture, chiropractor, naturopath, physiatrist — this has helped him more. It’s been insane watching his evolution with this.”
Since Peruzzi moved the chamber to her clinic, it has become a staple of her practice and has drawn around 15 wheelchair users with various needs. For Debbie Sloss, a C5 incomplete quad who goes to Peruzzi’s clinic, the decision to try HBOT boiled down to a simple question: “What do I have to lose?” She noticed improvement almost right away. “The extreme burning in my fingers really subsided,” she says. “After I’d been going for a while I could really feel my energy and blood flow waking up. It’s a really strange feeling but it was really good, very positive.”
A typical session for Sloss is about one and a half hours. She stands and pivots into the chamber and then lies down and zips in. “Once I’m there it’s comfortable,” she says. “I let the oxygen just take over and I take a nap.” Sloss started out using the chamber almost every day, but with no help from insurance, the cost of regular sessions quickly piled up. She now tries to make it twice a week and is considering purchasing a chamber for her home. “If it works and is very beneficial — you’ve just got to kind of swallow it, even though that’s easier said than done,” she says.
A More Accessible Future?
Peruzzi is fully aware of the financial burden that keeps people from realizing the benefits of a product she wholeheartedly believes in. To that end, she has started Access Oxygen, a venture with the goal of making mild HBOT more financially accessible.