Hyperbaric chambers: the what and the why

With all the attention being focused on hyperbaric chambers this week, I found that a lot of people have questions about just how they work, why on earth they’re necessary, and what the procedures are in using them.

Just what do hyperbaric chambers do, anyway?

Nearly everything, it turns out. Equine hyperbaric chambers have been in use since 1999, starting out at the racetracks and then moving into more neutral clinical and sporthorse territory. They’re becoming a sort of miracle drug, in fact.

mobile equine hyperbaric chamber

A mobile hyperbaric chamber, from EquineOx.com

Race training:

Like most veterinary breakthroughs and new technologies, the hyperbaric chamber first made in-roads on the equine community at the racetrack, and it’s growing in popularity.

I found this great blog post, from 2008, about race trainer Wayne Catalano’s use of hyperbaric chambers in his training strategy:

When asked if he thought hyperbaric oxygen therapy is a miracle, Catalano said, “I think it is … it’s been a big help. We’ve won five or six races out of the tank.

The pictures of the hyperbaric chamber he was using appear outdated and a little alarming to my claustrophobic eyes, but the owner and operator of the facility (which is basically a hyperbaric chamber inside a steel pre-fab barn) says that the horses are fine with it:

It’s difficult to imagine persuading a high-strung racehorse to walk into the long, white, windowless tube, but DiTola said they rarely have problems. “They probably think they’re in a horse trailer,” he said. The horses stand in a narrow stall, but aren’t tied up during treatment sessions. “They kind of love it,” DiTola said, adding that one filly is so enthusiastic, she virtually drags the handler into the chamber.

And what is it used for? What else? Bleeders, soft tissue, and tying up. The holy trinity of racehorse maladies.

In racing circles, the treatment is mainly used for horses suffering from exercise-induced hemorrhage of lung capillaries (known as “bleeders”), soft tissue injuries, such as tendon and ligament problems, and horses with the muscle-cramping syndrome known as “tying up.”

Hyperbaric chambers are even in some surprising places: WinStar Farm has one of their own, listed on their training page as a tool to speed recovery. And guess who else goes into them: newborn foals!

Dummy foals:

Dummy foals, essentially foals suffering from a neonatal adjustment syndrome, have suffered hemorrhage in the tissues of their brain and the nervous centers, swollen, aren’t operating properly. The foals typically do not suckle, may have seizures, or even fall into a coma. Because dummy foals are typically oxygen-starved, hyperbaric therapy has lended itself quite nicely to their treatment.

This article, from the 2005 Horsemen’s Journal, quotes Amanda Shoults, who operated the hyperbaric chamber at WinStar:

“When the foal is about eight hours old, it goes in (to the chamber),” Shoults explained. “We just tried it this past foaling season to see if it has any effect on the herd’s health.”

One positive result was a “dummy” foal that was put in the chamber for treatment. “Fifteen minutes into the treatment, the foal was up and nursing,” Shoults said. “He’s been fine ever since.”

Tim Martin, whose Equineox Technologies developed the first commercial hyperbaric chamber, told the Equine Chronicle: “We made a foal chamber, and in Kentucky where they were having a major problem with this, 8 out of 10 comatose foals put into the chamber woke up. The oxygen got right to their brain and they came out of their coma.”

Soft-tissue injury:

The Horsemen’s Journal article also profiled a horse named Oscar, belonging to Ocala pinhooker Niall Brennan’s wife, Stephanie. Oscar was three-legged lame and ready to be euthanized in May of 2004, after a tendon sheath infection as a long yearling left him with disintegrating sesamoids. Two surgeries and the best of veterinary medicine weren’t enough to save Oscar. They discovered the hyperbaric chamber at KESMARC Lexington and took home a horse who could run, buck, and play with his friends in the field and might just go into training as a sporthorse.

Tom Scherder of Pegasus Medical Equine in Lexington, KY, offered several miracle recoveries to the Equine Chronicle. Here’s just one:

A horse had completely demolished the xyz tendon. “We’ve done about 17 treatments on the horse and took a new sonogram. Over a period of about a month and a half the tendon has completely remodeled. If you didn’t know better, you’d think we took a picture of the wrong leg. There’s some calcification that occurred when the bone was reaching out to attach the tendon, but the horse is now ready to go back to racing. He’s jogging for exercise to strengthen it, and is sound.”


Scherder also asserts that horses who have just been diagnosed with acute laminitis can be saved by hyperbarics, explaining that saturating the body with oxygen develops new blood vessels to feed the tissues that have been starved by a failed circulation.

The Equineox Technologies website lists treating laminitis as one of the hyperbaric chambers’ key uses, along with colic, infections, and basically anything else a horse can contract, inflict upon itself, or fall victim to.

So are hyperbaric chambers miracle drugs? Are they the new key weapon in our battle against equine lameness, loss of use, and death? It certainly looks as though oxygen treatments support and optimize modern veterinary medicine in every way. And their proliferation, from mobile units to private farms, suggest that hyperbaric chambers are now a part of our landscape.




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