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Hyperbaric Therapy Could Help Diabetics

WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

Nov. 7, 2001 -- Last year, a surgeon told Thelma Bell that wounds on her right foot had progressed to gangrene and she was facing amputation. She'd already lost two toes because of nerve and circulatory damage caused by diabetes.

But within a few weeks, Bell's wounds were nearly healed, and the tissue on her foot appeared pink and healthy. Her foot and leg were saved, and doctors predicted that once she was fitted with a special shoe, she should be able to walk normally.

Bell escaped the fate of the estimated 86,000 people each year who have lower limb amputations because of complications of diabetes; they account for half of all leg and foot removals performed annually in the U.S. Her outcome was different because of wound care aided by hyperbaric oxygen therapy, says Jeffrey Stone, DO, MPH.

Stone, director of the hyperbaric medicine unit at the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine (IEEM), is studying whether use of the therapy can reduce diabetic amputations. "One of my questions has been the role of hyperbarics in diabetic wounds," he tells WebMD.

Patients are put in a large, submarine-like chamber and don a clear plastic hood into which 100% oxygen is pumped. This increases the amount of oxygen in their blood, which in turn helps generate growth of vessels, says Stone.

Vessel growth is crucial for diabetics because they have circulatory problems due to blocked arteries and capillaries. They also have nerve problems, called sensory neuropathy, so they often can't feel cuts on their feet. "I've had patients come in with a nail in a foot and not know it," Stone says.

Once an injury occurs, it may not heal if there's not enough oxygen-enriched blood reaching the area. Often, as in Bell's case, the wound may fester until the only option is amputation.

For military veterans alone, this results in about 9,000 amputations annually at a total cost for surgery, hospitalization, medical care, and rehabilitation of $341 million, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Diabetics are 15 to 40 times more likely to have a leg amputated than someone not suffering from the disease.

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