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Autism and Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy

What is Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (HBOT)?

Let’s start off with explaining what hyperbaric oxygen therapy is.  Hyperbaric means “increased pressure,” much like the increased pressure inside a soda can (at least until you pop the top and the pressure escapes).  Oxygen refers to the gas used.  So, what we are really talking about here is using oxygen as a therapeutic “drug” and giving it under pressure.

Now, going back to the soda can, the gas used here is Carbon Dioxide which, under pressure, will “dissolve” into the soda.  The sweet syrupy water was never intended to hold the carbon dioxide gas, but under mild pressure, it will, and we have the delightful little bubbles.  So, brown syrupy water, known as “cola” can have carbon dioxide gas dissolved into it under pressure.

With HBOT, we are placed into a chamber (sort of like a soda can!) and the pressure is very gently increased along with the administration of oxygen.  The oxygen, under this mild pressure, is then easily “dissolved” into the blood stream and there is a LOT more oxygen available for tissues with each and every beat of the heart – much more when compared to the oxygen available with just breathing.

Why would we even consider doing this in children with the diagnosis of autism?

Studies have shown that children with Autism may have decreased blood flow through the brain, and more specifically, the sides of the brain.  This can be shown on a SPECT scan (a very special CT scan).  Less blood flow through the brain can be equated with decreased oxygen flowing through the brain as well, since one of the major roles of blood flow is to deliver oxygen to tissues.  By increasing the amount of oxygen carried by the blood stream (more specifically, the plasma), the greater opportunity for oxygen deprived tissue to receive more oxygen.   Here’s what I commonly see in my clinic:

•    Improved sleep
•    Improved bowel function
•    Regulation of bowel movements
•    Improved immune functioning with a decrease in frequent infections
•    Improved expressive language
•    Improved receptive language
•    Improved fine and gross motor skills
•    Improved muscle tone and strength
•    Increased mental alertness
•    Increased calmness
•    Improved mood

How soon can we expect to see results, and how many of these treatments are needed?
The number of treatments varies on the severity of the symptoms, but you can usually figure on 40-120 treatments.  Results are generally seen within the first 40 treatments, but benefits, such as sleeping through the night can be seen within the first 10 treatments.

Are there any risks with HBOT?
Every medical intervention has risks associated with it.  Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is no exception.  Make sure you talk to your doctor before doing any HBOT treatments.

Seizure: There is a very small risk of seizure at pressures and amount of oxygen used for children on the autism spectrum.  Generally, the lower pressures and shorter treatment times (60 minutes versus 90 min or longer) make the risk of seizure in a hyperbaric environment incredibly small.

Ear pain and even trauma to the ear drum (tympanic membrane) and sinus discomfort:  it is very important to have a well-trained technician watch you and your child as you go under pressure.  It can get uncomfortable if you are not able to equalize the pressure across the ear drum.  This can be likened to coming down in an airplane, you have to be able to yawn, swallow, etc to equalize the pressures.  Fortunately, most children and their parents can “instinctively” learn how to accomplish this maneuver.

Eye changes: temporary changes that can result in near-sightedness.  HBOT can also accelerate cataract development.

Are there children who should NOT undergo hyperbaric treatments?
It would be very rare for a child to have any conditions that would result in him or her not being able to undergo this kind of therapy.  Your doctor will know of these particular risks and double check that both the child and the parent or the “diving partner” does not have any of these conditions.

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