Hyperbaric Treatment

Last week, Southern California divers celebrated a staple in our community: The USC Catalina Hyperbaric Chamber.  For 40 years, divers and divers and divers have been treated and saved by the hyperbaric chamber.

Ads for this year's Chamber Day and Chamber Eve
Ads for this year’s Chamber Day and Chamber Eve

So what is a hyperbaric chamber and how does it work?

I guess we’d need to take a few steps back and consider the circumstances that bring scuba divers to chambers in the first place.

Scuba divers, breathing compressed air under increased pressure underwater absorb nitrogen in our tissues.  This doesn’t happen to folks on the surface, where under 1 atmosphere of pressure, nitrogen is breathed in and out again, exerting practically no influence on our bodies.  Under pressure, however, the body is absorbing nitrogen at a rate that prevents humans from exhaling it quickly enough.  It starts to build up in all our tissues: bones, organs, all your goodies, but we are especially mindful about the nitrogen build up in our blood.

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Consider a scuba diver’s blood like soda inside an unopened bottle.  If you gradually and slowly twist off the cap of that soda, the bubbles saturated in the soda will slowly escape without making the soda fizz up.  If you open that bottle quickly, the bubbles will all try to escape at once….causing the soda to fizz up and maybe out of the bottle.*  This is what happens when a diver ascends (or removes the added pressure of depth) from their body.  Their blood needs to slowly ditch that accumulated nitrogen, or else it will bubble up and cause some nasty problems.

Mistakes happen, and emergencies arise.  Sometimes, even when a diver does everything right, too much nitrogen will bubble up and cause problems. But luckily there is a way to treat these situations safely.

The USC Chamber, large enough to treat multiple patients comfortably.
The USC Chamber, large enough to treat multiple patients comfortably.

A hyperbaric chamber is literally like a sealed breadbox with medical professionals inside and outside.  A diver (or any person) requiring treatment is placed inside and thus begins their “dry dive”.

A dry dive brings the people inside the chamber to a prescribed depth by increasing pressure in the breadbox (chamber). This forces all the nitrogen in the blood (tissues) to become more compressed and the bubbles smaller. The blood is able to circulate throughout the body normally, supplying the body with delicious and necessary oxygen.  The chamber also pumps in increased oxygen percentages so that people in treatment can absorb more healthy and healing oxygen. Normal respiration functions begin to ditch the extra nitrogen.

Old school chamber, very small and claustrophobia inducing.
Old school chamber, very small and claustrophobia inducing.

Over a period of time,  the chamber tenders very very slowly decrease the pressure exerted on the body.  Because the body is naturally ditching the nitrogen, the slow decreases in pressure (or “surfacing”) does not cause anymore soda fizz bubbles.  After hours of treatment, nitrogen levels get back to normal and hopefully there is no lasting damages. I’ve heard stories of people temporarily paralyzed by DCS recover full function.

You may have some questions:

1) Why don’t you just go on a dive in the ocean and re-compress yourself: it’s cheaper?

Why its bad: You can’t supply yourself with pure oxygen from a scuba tank, and it would be a terrible idea to do so under depth without medical assistance (who do so only for prescribed times and depths to prevent oxygen toxicity).  Also, people may lose consciousness. also, you probably couldn’t do a dive long enough to treat yourself.

2) Is this whole big breadbox just for diving accidents?

No: Lots of things can be treated by the chamber. gangrene, strokes, carbon monoxide poisoning, abcess, anemia, burns, etc. High concentrations of 02 help a lot of things.

3) Have you ever been in a chamber?

Not to be treated, but yes on a tour! It’s really a modern marvel.

Previously I said that southern california was celebrating our chamber last week.  Every year, The hyperbaric chamber in Catalina holds a fundraiser.  Many in our community come together to dive, raffle prizes, and have a fancy “scuba prom” at the Aquarium of the Pacific, in order to help maintain and promote the services offered there. Now that you know how important a well maintained and funded chamber is to us recreational divers, I hope you’ll consider offering your support.

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stay safe! but plan for the worst: get DAN in case you ever need to be treated by a chamber, you’ll be covered.



*this is Henry’s Law, AKA “At a constant temperature, the amount of a given gas that dissolves in a given type and volume of liquid is directly proportional to the partial pressure of that gas in equilibrium with that liquid.”

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