WASHINGTON D.C. -- High-pressure chambers used to treat deep sea divers for decompression sickness could play a key role in preventing permanent spinal cord damage and paralysis to many of the thousands of Americans who suffer spinal cord injuries every year, a doctor from Scotland reported today.
Dr. Philip James of the University of Dundee reported at a conference here that putting patients under high pressure forces more cell-resuscitating oxygen into damaged spinal nerves than is possible at normal atmospheric pressure.
"It may mean the difference between significant disability and no disability," James said.
James made his remarks at a meeting of the Space and Underwater Research Group of the World Federation of Neurology. The meeting is being coordinated by the Stroke Research Center of the Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center.
James has been a consulting physician to North Sea diving operations for 25 years. Divers sometimes suffer from bubbles in their spinal cord, resulting in tissue damage that is similar to the bruising that spinal cords suffer from traumatic injury.
Typically, nerve tissue in the spinal cord is starved of oxygen because the small capillaries that carry blood to the tissue are damaged. If adequate blood flow is not restored within hours, the nerve cells in the spinal cord die from lack of oxygen. This can result in complete or partial paralysis.
Placing these divers in hyperbaric chambers and raising the pressure to 2.8 times the normal atmospheric pressure hastens their recovery, James said, because under high pressure the blood carries proportionally more oxygen. This raises the oxygen levels in the damaged nerve tissue toward normal levels to assist recovery. For spinal cord injury patients, raising the pressure to two times atmospheric pressure would be adequate, James said.