Hyperbaric oxygen therapy: A unique service in Bemidji

Sanford Health offers treatment close to home for help healing wounds

View through the end of a clear tube with a hospital bed inside it. The door is open like a bank vault.

Health care providers at Sanford Bemidji can help heal their patients in many different ways. One of the more unique services available is hyperbaric oxygen therapy or HBOT.

“Hyperbaric medicine has been around for centuries,” said Dr. Stephen Rith-Najarian, a family physician at Sanford Bemidji’s Wound Care and Hyperbaric Center. “Oxygen is a drug that affects inflammation, cellular activation, and fighting infection in ways that promote wound healing.”

Common hyperbaric treatments

HBOT is most effective for certain treatments such as decompression illness from scuba diving, otherwise known as “the bends.” It is also used to treat deep tissue and bone infections commonly seen in foot wounds of diabetic patients. Another common reason for patients to receive hyperbaric oxygen therapy is to prevent oral wounds and treat tissue inflammation which may occur following radiation treatment.

“If you think of oxygen as a drug, the pressure is the dose and the number of sessions is the duration of the treatment, just like prescribing an antibiotic. We prescribe hyperbaric oxygen and we base those doses and length of treatments on the results of scientific studies,” said Dr. Rith-Najarian.

Accessibility is important

Sanford Bemidji has two hyperbaric chambers, each of which allows patients to undergo the two-hour treatments. Depending on their diagnosis, a patient may need 20-40 treatments to help with their condition. HBOT is a time-consuming therapy, but one that could take much more time — or even be disregarded completely — if patients had to drive longer distances to receive it.

“We are the only unit in this part of Minnesota,” said Dennis Barrett, Sanford Bemidji’s director of orthopedics and sports medicine. “It’s quite a commitment for the patient. It is a daily treatment that takes about two hours. And so with it being that close to home, it makes it a lot more accessible for the patient. If it wasn’t here, many patients just wouldn’t have the treatment.”

‘Not a magic wand’

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is not for everyone though. While the treatment can help with healing, Dr. Rith-Najarian is quick to point out the limitations of HBOT.

“It’s not a magic bullet. It’s not a magic wand. For people with diabetic foot infections and foot ulcers, the amount of difference it makes is about 30 or 40%. It’s not a hundred percent. More importantly, it’s an adjunctive therapy, or a therapy we use in combination with other effective treatments,” said Dr. Rith-Najarian. “That said, a 30 or 40% benefit for some individuals may be the difference between saving their limb and amputation … a big difference in quality of life.”

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Posted In Bemidji, Family Medicine, Orthopedics, Rehabilitation & Therapy, Sports Medicine