by Angela Bacca
Climbing into the hyperbaric chamber felt like climbing into a body bag. I was seized with panic immediately as the zipper made its way up from my feet to my face. I could hear the loud hum of the machines through the bag as I became acutely aware I was trapped. As the highly oxygenated air pumped through the bag my ears began popping from the pressure as if I was rapidly ascending a mountain peak. The lights were turned off and ambient music turned up, and, fifteen minutes later, I experienced the blissed-out high of the oxygen and decided this must be what heaven felt like and I never wanted to leave.
Oxygen not only creates the feeling of a “high,” it relieves anxiety and promotes the body’s ability to heal wounds. The air we breath is about 20 percent oxygen, 78 percent nitrogen and less than 0.3 percent carbon dioxide. When more oxygen is delivered to the tissues through the blood the body increases its ability to heal. The purpose of hyperbaric oxygen therapy is to force more oxygen into the bloodstream encouraging the body to heal itself.
Hyperbaric oxygen chambers come in both portable and hard-shelled units, many are solo coffin-like experiences but others are multi-person chambers. The air inside the unit is pressurized to three times normal air pressure and 100 percent oxygenated air is pumped in. Every breath taken inside a chamber delivers potent oxygen through the lungs into the bloodstream resulting in increased oxygen in the various organs’ tissues.
That explains the physical healing, but what about the experience made me so happy?
The lack of carbon dioxide may explain the mental effects more so than the increase of oxygen. Because humans inhale oxygen (O2) and exhale carbon dioxide (CO2), in smaller spaces localized CO2 can become concentrated and mildly increase anxiety because the CO2 ratio change can signal to the body that it is suffocating.