During a game against the Philadelphia Eagles early in the NFL season, Dallas
Cowboys center Mark Stepnoski sprained his ankle so badly he had to be carried from the field. Team doctors classified his injury as severe, and from the looks of the swelling, it was a good bet Stepnoski would be out for weeks. But after a few rides in the Cowboys' "space capsule," Stepnoski walked without crutches in two days and was back to blocking by week's end.
What the Cowboys refer to as their "space capsule" is a hyperbaric oxygen (HBO) chamber. The 41/2-ft.-by-7-ft. steel container offers a unique form of physical therapy by facilitating the flow of oxygen to injured areas. As HBO units become more prevalent, the therapy will move beyond professional athletes to weekend warriors. An HBO device compresses ambient air while patients breathe pure oxygen through a mask. The higher air pressure within the chamber accelerates oxygen dissolution in the bloodstream. Thus, healing oxygen reaches torn muscles and broken bones at up to 15 times the normal rate. And because increased oxygen flow constricts blood vessels, swelling is kept to a minimum.
Although it's a new fad in the National Football League--the Cowboys, San Francisco 49ers, and New York Jets all acquired HBO units during 1994--HBO therapy has been around since the 1940s, when the Navy used it to treat divers with decompression sickness, or the bends. Only within the past two decades, however, has there been enough research on HBO to support other medical applications. Clinical evidence now supports--and most insurance covers--its use to treat burns and bone infections with vascular complications.
Yet proof of HBO's efficacy in treating minor trauma injuries, such as sprains, strains, and fractures, is mostly anecdotal. Thus, most insurers don't cover its use for those conditions, even though case studies show recoveries can be twice as fast. A serious sprain may take three one-hour sessions, a fracture at least nine, at $100 to $200 per hour.
FUNDED RESEARCH. There are more than 300 HBO facilities across the U.S., mostly in hospitals to treat serious conditions. But as more teams invest in units and report improved recovery times, rehab specialists predict HBO will become as accepted a physical therapy as ultrasound. "We're waiting for insurance companies to realize the benefits," says Dr. Anthony DiBlanda, director of the Functional Spine Rehabilitation Center in Hauppauge, N.Y.
DiBlanda is developing a research protocol for treating back patients with HBO. Studies are also under way at Temple University in Philadelphia and the University of British Columbia. Paul Reinhart, chairman of Vancouver-based Calipre Technologies, which markets HBO units, says Calipre plans to back more research "to convince insurers and industry that HBO will get workers back on the job faster, just like it gets players back in the game faster." If the case is made, many more people will be riding in space capsules to heal their earthly injuries fast.