What is the physics behind hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT)?

Updated: Nov 16, 2020
  • Author: Emi Latham, MD, FACEP, FAAEM, UHM; Chief Editor: Zab Mosenifar, MD, FACP, FCCP  more...
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The physics behind hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) lies within the ideal gas laws.

The application of Boyle law (p1 v1 = p2 v2) is seen in many aspects of HBOT. This can be useful with embolic phenomena such as decompression sickness (DCS) or arterial gas emboli (AGE). As the pressure is increased, the volume of the concerning bubble decreases. This also becomes important with chamber decompression; if a patient holds her breath, the volume of the gas trapped in the lungs overexpands and may cause a pneumothorax.

Charles law ([p1 v1]/T1 = [p2 v2]/T2) explains the temperature increase when the vessel is pressurized and the decrease in temperature with depressurization. This is important to remember when treating children or patients who are very sick or are intubated.

Henry law states that the amount of gas dissolved in a liquid is equal to the partial pressure of the gas exerted on the surface of the liquid. By increasing the atmospheric pressure in the chamber, more oxygen can be dissolved into the plasma than would be seen at surface pressure.

The clinician must be able to calculate how much oxygen a patient is receiving. In order to standardize this amount, atmospheres absolute (ATA) are used. This can be calculated from the percentage of oxygen in the gas mixture (usually 100% in HBOT; 21% if using air) and multiplied by the pressure. The pressure is expressed in feet of seawater (fsw), which is the pressure experienced if one were descending to that depth while in seawater. Depth and pressure can be measured in many ways; some common conversions are 1 atmosphere (atm) = 33 feet of seawater (fsw) = 10 meters of sea water (msw) = 14.7 pounds per square inch (psi) = 1.01 bar.

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