Disclaimer: Consult with a doctor before deciding on a treatment plan for cancer or any other disease.
Quick Summary

Oxygen can promote healing. The concept behind hyperbaric oxygen therapy is that by increasing the amount of oxygen in the body cancer cells have a more difficult time surviving. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is a helper treatment and should not be used as a stand-alone therapy for cancer. It can be used with conventional cancer treatments including some types of chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery.

Detailed Introduction

Hyperbaric oxygen works by increasing the amount of dissolved oxygen in blood plasma which increases the amount of oxygen delivered to cells and tissues in the body. By delivering more oxygen to the body as a whole, cancer cells are also exposed to more oxygen. Since cancer cells don’t like an oxygen-rich environment, hyperbaric oxygen therapy can contribute to cancer cell death [1][2].


Hyperbaric oxygen has been used for centuries to improve health in patients with disorders related to hypoxia or ischemia. Clinically, hyperbaric chambers have been in use since the 1850’s with further development by the U.S. military following World War I. Oxygen promotes healing and Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy saturates the bloodstream and tissues with 10 to 13 times the amount of oxygen that humans can normally breathe in [1][3].  


Nearly every hospital in the United States has a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, though most of them are rarely used [3].


Because oxygen is required for healthy tissue growth, for years, oncology doctors were concerned that hyperbaric oxygen treatment would promote the development and recurrence of cancer. However, a number of studies over the past decade and a half have shown that hyperbaric oxygen does NOT promote the development or recurrence of cancer and that actually, hyperbaric oxygen may “have tumor-inhibitory effects in certain cancer subtypes” [1].


Some oncologists following the conventional medical model have also avoided hyperbaric oxygen therapy because they feel that when the therapy is used in tandem with the administration of certain chemotherapy drugs such as Cisplatin, patients could experience renal failure [2].


Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy is approved by the FDA to treat the following conditions:


  • Decompression sickness
  • Smoke inhalation
  • Carbon monoxide poisoning
  • Thermal burns
  • Non-healing wounds
  • Compromised skin grafts
  • Acute traumatic ischemias (crush injuries, compartment syndrome)
  • Necrotizing Soft Tissue Infections (flesh-eating bacterial disease)
  • Radiation tissue damage
  • Air or gas embolism
  • Severe blood loss anemia
  • Refractory osteomyelitis
  • Clostridial myonecrosis (gangrene) [3].

Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy has been used as a form of after-care for cancer patients who have received radiation treatments. Osteoradionecrosis, or delayed bone damage caused by radiation therapy, can be off-set slightly by the enhanced oxygen levels in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber. Soft tissue damage caused by radiation is similarly off-set Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy. As such, Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy straddles the political line in conventional medicine. Oncologists are wary of using it for cancer treatment because they believe (wrongly, according to the research) that it can be harmful rather than helpful. But Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy has been applied in a variety of ways to a number of disease states to produce positive results. The FDA has approved the use of hyperbaric oxygen for these 13 different disease states, but for cancer treatment itself, it remains controversial in conventional medical circles [3]. Integrative medicine specialists, on the other hand, tend to embrace Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy because of its ability to oxygenate the body and create a healthy environment that’s hostile to cancer cells.

Safety and Effectiveness

Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy is not without risks and side effects, but for the most part, these are mild and self-limiting. However, some side effects can be severe and life-threatening. Below are common side-effects experiences by patients undergoing Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy [4]:

  • Visual Refractive Changes

The pressure in the hyperbaric chamber can temporarily cause changes in the shape of the lens of the eye. After the patients complete the full course of hyperbaric treatments, vision typically returns to normal [4][5].

  • Cataract Maturation

Research has NOT shown that hyperbaric oxygen therapy causes cataracts to grow, but some doctors still believe that pre-existing cataracts might be worsened with Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy [4].

  • Claustrophobia

Some patients feel claustrophobic in the hyperbaric oxygen chamber. In some cases, patients can be sedated if claustrophobia symptoms are severe enough [4].

  • Hypoglycemia

Diabetic patients may experience a drop in blood sugar during hyperbaric oxygen treatments. Blood glucose levels may need to be monitored to avoid the development of hypoglycemia [4].

How Hyperbaric Oxygen Is Administered

Patients undergoing Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy receive treatment through a chamber. Hyperbaric chambers may be “monoplace” or “multiplace”. Monoplace chambers are designed to treat one person at a time. Multiplace chambers are designed to treat multiple people at a time. In a multiplace chamber, the oxygen is delivered through a mask or a hood [5].

Possible Negative Effects

The risks of doing Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy are low. Below are some of the possible negative outcomes that can occur as a result of Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy [4]:

  • Barotrauma of the Ear

Eardrum injury or round or oval window rupture resulting from increased pressure and manipulation of the internal environment of the chamber. This is the most common complication of Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy. Hearing problems and deafness could result [4][5].

  • Sinus Squeeze

Severe pain and bleeding sinuses can result when the sinuses are not allowed to equalized with the external environment [4][5].

  • Tooth Squeeze

Patients who have had recent dental work may experience pain or cracking of the teeth due to the increased pressure in the air-filled voids in the dental work [4].

  • Pneumothorax or Pulmonary Barotrauma

Lung tissue damage can occur as a result of pressure changes in the hyperbaric chamber. This lung tissue damage can cause air to leak from the lung into the chest cavity, causing a dropped lung. Patients with emphysema or asthma are at a higher risk of developing a pneumothorax [4].

  • Oxygen Toxicity Seizures

High levels of oxygen in the blood can be toxic to the central nervous system which can cause seizures. This is a rare event, but it is more likely to occur in people with pre-existing seizure disorders or hypoglycemia. Removing the supplemental oxygen from the patient typically ends the seizure [4].

  • Pulmonary Oxygen Toxicity

Prolonged exposure to high oxygen concentration levels can be detrimental for the lungs leading to chest pain, difficulty breathing, or even respiratory failure. This is a rare situation because of the intermittent nature of hyperbaric oxygen treatments, but it is of more of a concern for patients who chronically receive supplemental oxygen [4].

  • Decompression Sickness (the Bends)

Decompression sickness is more of a concern for interior chamber attendants than it is for patients doing Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy. Decompression sickness can cause pain, cardiopulmonary collapse, neurological injury, or even death [4].

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[1] Moen, I. & Stuhr, L. E. B. (2012). Hyperbaric oxygen therapy and cancer – a review. Retrieved March 23, 2018 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3510426/

[2] Oasis of Hope (2015). Oxygen Therapy at Oasis of Hope. Retrieved March 23, 2018 from http://www.oasisofhope.com/cancer-treatments-therapies/oxygen-therapy/

[3] Health Impact News (2018). FDA Seeks to Restrict Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy Used in Cancer Treatment. Retrieved March 23, 2018 from https://healthimpactnews.com/2013/fda-seeks-to-restrict-hyperbaric-oxygen-therapy-used-in-cancer-treatment/

[4] The University of Iowa (2018). Medical Risks of Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy. Retrieved March 23, 2018 from https://uihc.org/health-library/medical-risks-hyperbaric-oxygen-therapy

[5] Harch Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (). Retrieved March 23, 2018 from http://www.hbot.com/faq