A few years back the Danish doctors were a bit desperate in relation to my case. I kept getting the erysipelas infections which is problematic in many senses (read more about the infection here). One day a doctor said that it might be an idea to send me to pressure chamber treatment. I had never heard about this before but I of course agreed to try it out.
A few weeks later I took the elevator down into the basement of the biggest and most recognized hospital in Denmark, Rigshospitalet. When I stepped out of the elevator, I was met with long, grey, dark basement corridors and goose bumps showed up all over my arms (this was probably worsened by the fact that I have seen the creepy tv-series “Riget” by the Danish director Lars Von Trier which was taking place in those corridors).
After a few minutes of walking I found the door into the right room. I stepped in and was short of breath just for a second. Have you ever seen a pressure chamber? With the knowledge of you having to step into the chamber running around in the back of your head? It can seem a bit frightening. But it turned out to be a quite relaxing way of being treated and it also had a great effect on my lymphedema, so it was all in all a good experience.
You can read more about the pressure chamber treatment down below.
- What is pressure chamber treatment?
- Treatments in relation to lymphedema
- Results of the pressure chamber treatment
- For the Danes: Henvisning til trykkammerbehandling
What is pressure chamber treatment?
The pressure chamber treatment is used, among other things, to treat decompression sickness, carbone monoxide poisoning, damages from cancer related to radiation therapy and acute infections.
The purpose of the treatment is described as follows on Rigshospitales website:
- To get more oxygen to the damaged area.
- To form new blood vessels in the damaged area.
- To treat the damages happened to the blood vessels in the damaged area.
- To recreate a normal, or almost normal, tissue where it was otherwise damaged.
- To reduce the swelling which is presumed to be in the damaged area.
The treatment takes place in special steel chamber, also commonly known as a pressure chamber. The chamber is (in Denmark) operated by professional divers and of course medical staff, and you usually sit 6-7 patients in the chamber at a time.
During the treatment the pressure in the chamber will slowly rise and stop when it reaches a certain level. You will then sit in the chamber for around 2 hours. You are not allowed to bring things into the chamber except from a pencil, books and magazines. So you can just relax with a good book while getting the treatment.
During the treatment you will be wearing a see-through hood in which there will be 100 % pure oxygen. You will thereby only inhale pure oxygen during the treatment.
One thing is very important when you do this treatment. In the first five minutes in the chamber you are “diving down” (as in: the pressure in the chamber is rising) and to be able to do this treatment, you must be able to equalize the pressure in your ears yourself. At first, I found it nerve wrecking that it was so important that I was able to do this correct but it turned out to be extremely easy and no problem at all. It is kind of the same thing as when you go flying.
The treatment (in Denmark) normally lasts for 6 weeks and you will have to show up for a total of 30 treatments. They normally treat patients Monday-Friday in the Danish Rigshospital.
There are no side effects of the treatment. But the treatment can be challenging for you mentally if you suffer from claustrophobia since you are locked in a small chamber with a couple of other people. If you get uncomfortable during the treatment, it is possible to be let out through the sluice system in the chamber; the people managing the chamber will then come into the chamber and help you out.
Besides this, there is always a risk of getting oxygen cramps, but this happens extremely rarely. These cramps are similar to an epileptic seizure, but you will get no permanent damages from the seizure. I believe I was told that it only happens for 1 out of a 3.000 patients or something like that. Fun fact, though: After my first treatment, I called my dad saying: “Hey Daddy-O, guess who apparently is the one out of 3.000 patients who has a low oxygen tolerance and therefore has to be treated a certain way in the chamber, so she does not go into oxygen cramps? Yeps.”
My dad just laughed, because it in my case always is a bit tragicomic. My friends sometimes joke about me going in to a new treatment; they say that I should firstly ask the doctors what the most unusual side effect of the treatment is and when they answer, I should swiftly respond “Yep, I’m gonna get that!” Unfortunately, I have a tendency to always get the weirdest and most rare side effects.
Fortunately it is pretty easy to handle a patient with low oxygen tolerance. There is one seat in the chamber where the personnel can control the oxygenation to the mask you are wearing in the chamber. In that way they can turn down the level of pure oxygen in the mask all the way down to the normal level of 21 % pure oxygen. So if a patient, sitting in that specific seat, begins feeling a bit woozy inside the chamber, the personnel will regulate the oxygenation to prevent the patient from getting cramps.
When undergoing the pressure chamber treatment you should probably expect to get a bit more tired than usual. I myself had treatments in the mornings and when I was done, I went home and took a 3 hour-nap. And despite of the nap I still needed to dive under the covers around 9 o’clock in the evening.
Pressure chamber treatment in relation to lymphedema
When I was first referred to pressure chamber treatment, I was informed about two thing by the referring doctor. First of all she was not even sure that Rigshospitalet would be willing to treat me in the pressure chamber because this kind of treatment is normally used for other purposes. And second of all that she could not guarantee that the treatment would have any effect on me because she did not know of experiences with treating lymphedema using pressure chamber treatments.
I myself was referred to pressure chamber treatment because of severe problems with erysipelas infections; I was hospitalized practically always because of this infection and they did not know what to do about it.
When I spoke to the doctor in charge of the pressure chamber treatment, he told me he expected two things would happen in relation to my lymphedema:
- He expected the treatment to have a great effect on my lymphedema which ultimately also would mean fewer infections and
- he expected that the treatment would be able to soften some of the tissue in my legs that had already gone hard because of late interference when I was first diagnosed with lymphedema.
Results of the pressure chamber treatment
As far as I know research is still being made on the effects of pressure chamber treatment on lymphedema. Without any specific statistic information, I can only tell about my personal experiences with the treatment.
The conclusion was pretty clear when I finished my treatment of 30 sessions in the pressure chamber: My legs were considerably thinner!
My lymphedema seemed to be minimised in a noticeable degree because of the treatment. My legs looked better than they had done in years and they were no longer those stiff, heavy beams. There was no doubt that the treatment had improved the lymphatic flow and loosened up some of the hard tissue in my legs.
Unfortunately the treatment did not work well enough (for me) to prevent new erysipelas infections. And as soon as those broke out, all the good results of the treatment disappeared, because the infections has a tendency to make my legs swell to almost double their size and at the same time the swelling does not just disappear when the infection is over a few weeks later.
So in my case the treatment did not have the hoped effect on my infections and that unfortunately had consequences in relation to the other good results. With that being said, I would definitely recommend the treatment and I would not say no if I had the opportunity to do the treatment again myself (at a time where the infections were not such a big problem).
Luckily for me the treatment had amazing results on other areas. I have suffered from severe radiation therapy damages in my stomach and after the pressure chamber treatment I could actually go back to living a normal life again in relation to eating. So I did indeed get something out of the treatment in the long run.
For the Danes: Henvisning til trykkammerbehandling
(This section is written in Danish because it relates to the Danish rules of how to get public treatment in a pressure chamber. If you should have any interest in this subject in English, please do not hesitate to contact me.)
Trykkammerbehandlingen foregår – så vidt jeg er orienteret – kun på nogle få af de danske hospitaler. Som det fremgår af teksten ovenfor, blev jeg selv behandlet på Rigshospitalet.
Hvis du tror, det kunne være gavnligt for dig og dit helbred at komme i trykkammerbehandling, vil jeg anbefale dig at kontakte din egen læge. Lægen kan så vurdere, om han eller hun også mener, at det kunne have en gavnlig effekt for dig at undergå denne behandlingsform.
Du kan blive henvist til trykkammerbehandling både af din egen læge og af hospitalet. Hvis du i forbindelse med et kræftforløb går til kontroller på hospitalet, kan du eventuelt bringe emnet op til en kontrol for at høre hospitalets holdning til, om det kunne være relevant for dig at komme i trykkammerbehandling.
Da jeg var i behandling på Rigshospitalet, havde de utrolig mange patienter og især mange diabetes- og kræftpatienter bliver eftersigende behandlet derinde. Jeg formoder derfor, at de bliver nødt til at vurdere nøje, om behandlingen kan være gavnlig i lige præcis dit tilfælde.
Du kan læse mere om Rigshospitalets trykkammerbehandling her: https://www.rigshospitalet.dk/afdelinger-og-klinikker/hovedorto/anaestesi-og-operationsklinikken/undersoegelse-og-behandling/Sider/trykkammerbehandling.aspx