Over the years, Michael Jackson has graced more tabloid covers than any other celebrity. One memorable photo from the mid-1980s showed Jackson lying in a hyperbaric chamber, presumably part of his plan to stay young forever.
Perhaps inspired by that image, many health seekers have climbed into hyperbaric chambers of their own. The prospect of slowing or reversing aging is one draw.
Others hope the extra air pressure and oxygen a chamber provides can cure their cancer or some other chronic disease. A growing number of parents seek hyperbaric therapy to treat their children's autism or cerebral palsy.
Portable hyperbaric chambers are showing up in spas and alternative health clinics across the country. You can even rent or buy one for home use and climb into your pressurized haven as often as you like.
Summit to Sea manufactures three home-use chambers. The Shallow Dive -- 28 inches wide and 7 feet long -- sells for almost $7,000. It comes with a compressor that fills the chamber with filtered room air to a pressure of 1.2 ATA (short for atmospheres absolute).
The Flexi-Lite portable chamber sold by HyperbaricsRx is 34 inches wide and almost 9 feet long. It costs a bit more than $17,000.
Portable hyperbaric chambers are different from the rigid, high-pressure devices found in some hospitals. Hospital chambers can provide 100 percent oxygen at pressures of more than 6 ATA.
The Web site for American Medical Aesthetics Corp., which offers hyperbaric treatment, claims it is "a potent anti-aging therapy," energizing the body while clearing toxins. The site says that "children with severe autism, ADD and even cerebral palsy ... see remarkable progress in muscle control and brain function." The Summit to Sea Web site says that "many people all over the world have used hyperbaric chambers ... to treat a variety of conditions from autism to strokes to wound healing." The company doesn't claim to treat anything other than altitude sickness.
HyperbaricsRx claims that hyperbaric therapy "increases the body's ability to fight infections ... and improves the rate of healing." Laura Betts, a trainer and technician with the company, says the therapy fights aging by stimulating skin collagen and eliminating toxins.
The bottom line
Oxygen is vital for life, but as an anti-aging remedy, it's a bust, says Dr. Neil Hampson, a hyperbaric medicine specialist at Seattle's Virginia Mason Hospital and past president of the Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society. "If anything, oxygen accelerates aging."
Oxygen encourages formation of free radical compounds that damage cells. "We provide 5,000 or 6,000 hyperbaric treatments every year, and I have no perception that any of those people are looking younger." Hospital-based hyperbaric treatment has more than a dozen proven uses, Hampson says: treating victims of carbon monoxide poisoning and deep-sea divers with the "bends," or speeding the healing of wounds.
Claims that hyperbaric oxygen can treat autism or cerebral palsy are unfounded and unethical, says Dr. Jake Freiberger, an attending physician at the Center for Hyperbaric Medicine & Environmental Physiology at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C. "Some people are desperate," he says. "They are vulnerable to being manipulated."