Illustration by Mark Weber

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.

This Summit to Sea HBOT chamber is wheelchair accessible.

This Summit to Sea HBOT chamber is wheelchair accessible.

“I’m much more in favor of seeking other options than having people come to the clinic,” she says. “Coming to the clinic is great to start with, but I want to help people realize this isn’t something that needs to be done in a clinical setting. These chambers are approved for home use, and are meant to be used in the home … they’re easy to operate and I think there is this façade that has been created that you need to come to the clinic and spend a whole bunch of money to do this. I want to make it more attainable.”

Buying one of the cheaper chambers is the most cost-effective route if you are planning on regular use, according to Peruzzi. Peruzzi sells chambers made by Summit to Sea and Newtowne Hyperbarics, two of the three leading manufacturers of mild HBOT chambers. She says OxyHealth, the manufacturer of the Vitaeris 320, is another solid, if often more expensive option. She also rents chambers and is working to develop scholarships to help clients in need. Sloss adds, “I think it’s important to go in with an open mind. Don’t just give it a one-time shot, try it a handful of times.” Poor points out that many professional athletes are now using mild HBOT and hopes public perception will change. Peruzzi deflects mainstream medicine’s skepticism of mild HBOT’s value by pointing to a number of positive studies from less traditional perspectives. She believes in mild HBOT. “People were saying the same

[skeptical] things about acupuncture a few years ago.”

• Access Oxygen, 503/808-9145;
• OxyHealth (Makers of Vitaeris 320), 877/789-0123;
• Summit to Sea, 877/774-3483;
• Wellness Without Limits, 321/265-9028
• Newtowne Hyperbarics, 410/575-4220;

A Doctor’s Perspective

While many of the people using mild hyperbaric oxygen therapy swear by its benefits, many medical professionals will just as ardently question whether it has any impact. Breathing 100 percent oxygen in traditional, hard-sided chambers at upwards of twice the normal atmospheric pressure (2.0 ATA) has been scientifically proven to heal tissue and bone. Being exposed to the lower pressure (1.3 ATA) of soft-side mild chambers filled with ambient air has not been proven to have any medical value. Dr. Bruce Ruben, the founder and medical director of Encompass HealthCare and Wound Center in West Bloomfield, Illinois, has used hyperbaric oxygen to treat infections for years [“An Accessible Wound Clinic,” NEW MOBILITY, Feb. 2015]. A triple-board-certified specialist, Ruben was unfamiliar with the newer mild chambers that rely on ambient air. He was skeptical, but not dismissive. “If you’re just breathing air under pressure, all you’re doing is just supersaturating nitrogen into your fluid compartments and you’re not going to get a whole lot more oxygen.” He qualifies that by saying that if you breathe 100 percent oxygen through a mask while in the mild chamber, you would be getting a treatment. “The question then is, are you getting a benefit?”

“I’m all for anything that works and is safe,” he says. “If they’re getting a benefit, great, more power to them … I believe them when it happens and I wouldn’t tell them to change what they’re doing, but I would tell people I don’t want to treat them [using mild HBOT] because I don’t want your money.” He says the potential for helping inflammation makes physiological sense, but that he can think of “a million, less expensive, more time efficient ways of dealing with inflammation.”