If you’ve ever thought about scuba diving (or, perhaps, you’ve gone scuba diving before!) you’ve
probably heard of the dangers of decompression sickness. This condition occurs in divers who
travel from deep depths to the surface too quickly, causing nitrogen in the blood to form bubbles
due to increased amounts of pressure. People with decompression sickness require specific
treatment: hyperbaric oxygen treatment.
What’s this got to do with cancer? In turns out, researchers have explored the use of hyperbaric
oxygen therapy as a potential cancer treatment. In a time where the most common, traditional
cancer treatments either fail or cause uncomfortable side effects, people are searching for
something different. That’s why new treatments are needed, and why people are turning to
existing treatments that could be repurposed for cancer treatment.
Keep reading to learn more about hyperbaric oxygen therapy and how it could be used as a
What is hyperbaric oxygen treatment?
Hyperbaric oxygen treatment involves the administration of oxygen at high levels of pressure.
Typically, someone receiving hyperbaric oxygen treatment goes into a chamber, where a doctor
can increase the atmospheric pressure (usually, two or three times more than normal). Then,
patients are given oxygen to breathe.
The goal behind hyperbaric oxygen treatment is to use the high pressure environment to help
the lungs absorb more oxygen. More oxygen in the blood can be a positive: for example, it helps
stimulate the growth and release of things like stem cells, all of which can play a role in helping
address damage to the body or even infections.
How does hyperbaric oxygen treatment work for
Cancer has a unique relationship with oxygen. While boosting oxygen levels in the body can be
helpful for normal cells, cancer cells work a little differently. In everything they do, they consume
more than they need. They hog all the nutrients, starving other cells. They also consume a ton
of oxygen. This can deplete the oxygen levels around them, leaving them in an oxygen-deprived
environment. Surprisingly, though, cancer cells don’t always die off in this environment, where
normal, healthy cells would.
In fact, cancer cells can even become resistant to treatments like chemotherapy when they are
deprived of oxygen. This is called hypoxia. This means low oxygen environments can help
cancer cells thrive.
When it comes to cancer, hyperbaric oxygen treatment plays on the idea of cancer cells thriving
in oxygen-starved environments. The theory behind hyperbaric oxygen therapy suggests that by
flooding tumors and cancer cells with oxygen, it could help prevent treatment resistance and
even destroy cancer cells.
Is hyperbaric oxygen treatment effective?
It appears the jury is still out on that question, though some promising evidence has emerged in
- Slows tumor growth, but not for all cancers. A review of studies exploring hyperbaric
oxygen therapy concluded that it appeared to work for some types of cancers, but not all
types. The researchers called for more studies to explore other cancers.
- May help other cancer treatments work more effectively. Because hypoxia can
cause cancer cells to resist treatment, removing the conditions for hypoxia would
hypothetically remove that challenge. A study conducted in 2015 suggested that this
may be the case.
- Improving survival. One study examined the combined effects of a ketogenic diet and
hyperbaric oxygen therapy on mice with metastatic cancer (cancer that has spread
through the body). Overall, researchers found that the mice had better survival rates
when on both treatments.
So ultimately, hyperbaric oxygen treatment may be an effective way to support other cancer
treatments you are taking, rather than being a cancer treatment on its own. More research is
Is hyperbaric oxygen treatment safe?
Generally speaking, hyperbaric oxygen treatment is safe. It’s a safe way to treat decompression
sickness, and, despite worries that hyperbaric oxygen treatment could lead to recurring cancer,
research shows that this is not the case. It appears to be a safe treatment for people with
With any type of cancer treatment, it’s important to make sure you fully understand the available
treatment options and choose options that work for you. This should include talking to your
doctor before starting any cancer treatment. They can help you decide which treatment options
are right for you.