Let’s talk about oxygen. You likely learned in your elementary school biology class that humans breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. The cells of the body use oxygen to produce energy and perform many of the functions that keep us alive. So, how does this relate to aesthetic medicine? Enter hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT).
The natural, non-invasive treatment that simply requires you to, well, breathe has long been employed pre- and post-op across many fields of medicine thanks to its healing benefits, and there is a chance it may be a part of your plastic surgery recovery plan, too. Here’s what you need to know.
What Is Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy?
First, a quick vocabulary lesson: ‘hyper’ means increased and ‘baric’ refers to pressure. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy involves breathing 100 percent pure oxygen under higher atmospheric pressure, which can increase the oxygen concentration in the body by up to 1200 percent.
As you may have guessed, that boost has a host of widely accepted positive health effects, including:
- Increased blood flow
- Encouragement of body tissue regeneration
- Decreased inflammation
- Stem cell mobilization
- Improved infection fighting
- Killing of anaerobic bacteria
- Enhanced ability to heal
“Hyperbaric oxygen therapy increases the amount of oxygen your blood can carry,” explains Kevin Tehrani, MD, a board certified plastic and reconstructive surgeon and founder of Aristocrat Plastic Surgery & MedAesthetics in New York. “An increase in blood oxygen temporarily restores normal levels of blood gases and tissue function to promote healing and fight infection.”
Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy in Plastic Surgery
In the medical world, hyperbaric oxygen is generally used to address poor healing wounds. “It basically superdrives the healing,” Dr. Tehrani says of the therapy. He, like many aesthetic providers, began offering it at his practice because proper healing and recovery is critical to the success of plastic and reconstructive surgery procedures. “Some people smoke, some people have diabetes, or prior radiation, and all of those things make you not heal as well,” he explains. “I want you to heal perfectly. That’s where hyperbaric comes in.”
The concept of HBOT is relatively straightforward (high pressure, meet oxygen), but the results can be extraordinary for patients who would otherwise face complications after surgery. “The high pressure dissolves the oxygen into your bloodstream, so the higher concentration of oxygen gets into the tissue that needs to heal,” Dr. Tehrani says.
Research has shown this is particularly beneficial for abdominoplasty patients, and Dr. Tehrani also encourages it for women undergoing breast reconstruction after radiation and for those getting fat transfer. “I do a lot of fat grafting for breast and bum, and the way that it takes is kind of like planting seeds in a garden — if you water it, it takes more. If you don’t water it, it dies,” he explains. “Oxygen is the water for fat, so we put them in the chamber to increase the take of the graft from, say, 60 percent to 80 percent, which is nice.”
While he introduced his bubble-like HBOT chamber specifically for surgical patients, there are some purported wellness benefits that are of interest to non-surgical clients as well. “Anecdotal effects that people talk about are anti-aging and overall rejuvenation,” he shares. “Oxygen gives you a bit of a glow. It makes you feel better. There is a bit of an oxygen high, if you will.”
A recent study even looked at the impact HBOT can have on patients with Alzheimer's disease and amnestic mild cognitive impairment. “There are a lot of cognitive things that are difficult to prove clinically but are out there,” he says.
Candidates for Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy
Wondering whether or not HBOT should be part of your recovery plan? “If I know someone is going to be healing poorly, then it’s recommended,” Dr. Tehrani says. “There are some people who are poor healers, and then there are some that I know will benefit.” The latter group refers to those undergoing procedures, like fat grafting, in which the result can be improved by treatment.
One group hyperbaric oxygen therapy is a must for? Smokers. “Surgically, smokers have detrimental side effects — higher infection rates, higher wound healing problems, open wounds — that hyperbaric oxygen counteracts,” he explains. “We give them a choice: stop smoking before surgery or you need to do this to heal well.”
At Dr. Tehrani’s practice, it is possible to tack a HBOT session onto non-surgical procedures, but it would purely be for the anecdotal beauty and wellness boost. “People who opt for it after Botox® or filler are those who believe in the anti-aging benefits,” he says.
It should be noted that there is higher pressure in the chamber, so people with certain ear issues or trouble equalizing are not good candidates. Depending on the setup, those with a fear of tight spaces may also find themselves uncomfortable. “A relative contraindication is people who have claustrophobia,” Dr. Tehrani adds. HBOT in hospital settings often involves a small tank that patients go into. “It’s very claustrophobic,” he notes. “Ours has the same benefits, but it’s a nicer experience.”
Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy Protocol
Like so many aspects of aesthetic medicine, HBOT treatment protocols depend on the patient. Hyperbaric oxygen can be prescribed before and/or after surgery, and your surgeon will advise you on what’s best. “The results are short-acting, which is why, in some patients, we need to do it before surgery and in some we need to do it after surgery,” Dr. Tehrani explains. “The effects of it don’t last more than 24 to 48 hours.”
Generally speaking, Dr. Tehrani’s post-op patients come in for daily sessions for the first seven to 10 days. Each treatment is 30 to 45 minutes and costs $300. “We do multiple sessions after surgery to get to the point where we say, ‘Okay, this looks great,’” he says.
Recovering from plastic surgery can be a daunting prospect, especially if you have had past difficulties with healing. When used before or after a procedure, hyperbaric oxygen therapy can significantly improve the chances of a more favorable outcome. Consult with your provider to determine if you are a candidate for HBOT and how it can benefit your post-operative plan.
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