Kahuna’s got it rough. Last August, the 183-pound sea turtle washed up near Hutchinson Island, Florida, after a shark clipped off nearly 60 percent of her front left flipper, resulting in a persistent bone infection. After nine months of various medical treatments, including surgery, antibiotics, and vitamins, she is still struggling to recuperate at the Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Juno Beach. Yet all hope is not lost: Veterinarians have begun using hyperbaric oxygen therapy to breathe new life into her ailing limb.
So just what is this treatment?
In the 1940s, the U.S. military developed hyperbaric oxygen therapy to treat deep-sea divers suffering from decompression sickness, aka the bends. The therapy has since been approved by the FDA to help with a wide range of problems, such as bone infections, failing skin grafts, gangrene, crush injuries, and carbon monoxide poisoning. Even Michael Jackson reportedly used it to recover from second-degree burns he received during the filming of a Pepsi commercial. And athletes, including Terrell Owens (video), have used hyperbaric oxygen therapy to try increase their endurance and help musculoskeletal injuries heal (though most research doesn’t support these uses).
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy works by combining increased oxygen content with high pressure. While lying in a cylindrical chamber, patients breathe in 100 percent oxygen (normal air is about 21 percent oxygen) at 2 to 3 times regular atmospheric pressure, for at least an hour. The high pressure pushes more oxygen through the lungs and into your blood plasma, allowing your blood to deliver up to 15 times the amount of oxygen it otherwise would. This helps rebuild body tissues, regrow blood vessels, and fight infections. In addition, the therapy shrinks gas bubbles, soothing decompression sickness, and treats carbon monoxide poisoning by removing CO from the bloodstream.
Researchers are looking into whether hyperbaric oxygen therapy can also be used for various neurological disorders, autism in particular.
But know that this isn’t some miracle cure without some risks. Not counting the potential danger of explosion, hyperbaric oxygen therapy can cause ear and sinus pain. Some treatments have even caused temporary nearsightedness. Despite these issues, hyperbaric oxygen therapy will probably continue to be valuable for humans, pets, and, yes, for big, injured turtles.