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In the early 1990s, tabloid photographs of pop singer Michael Jackson lying in an unusual glass-encased medical device were published worldwide. There were rumors of a secret anti-aging treatment or intensive oxygen therapy, but in reality the machine was a hyperbaric chamber. A hyperbaric chamber uses pumps and valves to recreate the greater air pressure experienced by divers under water. Pure oxygen or other saturated gas mixtures may also be pumped into a hyperbaric chamber for medical purposes.
The normal atmospheric condition we all experience on dry land is called normobaric pressure. When divers go under the surface, the pressure of the water and air above them increases with depth. This additional pressure causes several changes in the way a human body processes blood gases like oxygen and nitrogen.
If a diver surfaces too quickly, the gases in the blood can convert to bubbles and cause a very dangerous situation called the bends, or decompression sickness. A hyperbaric chamber, sometimes called a decompression chamber, can return a diver to the same depth and pressure experienced during the actual dive. This procedure in the hyperbaric chamber allows the nitrogen in the bubbles to escape naturally, leaving only absorbable oxygen.
A hyperbaric chamber's usefulness is not limited to decompression sickness. Certain diseases, such as diabetes or anemia, do not allow blood cells to become supersaturated with oxygen at normal atmospheric pressure. By placing the patient in a hyperbaric chamber and administering pure oxygen, doctors can increase the amount of oxygen cells carried off through the bloodstream. Patients suffering from gas gangrene or flesh-eating bacterial infections can also benefit from the hyperbaric chamber's increased atmospheric pressure.
In the United States, hyperbaric chamber treatments are recognized as safe and effective for a handful of medical conditions. European and Scandinavian countries have approved a wider use of the hyperbaric chamber, especially when used in conjunction with oxygen therapies. Treatment in a commercial hyperbaric chamber can be fairly expensive, and some divers with compression sickness can require dozens of treatments. Medical professionals are still debating any other benefits derived from hyperbaric chamber treatments, including reduced effects of aging and improved mental stamina. There are companies worldwide which can provide private hyperbaric chamber models for home use.