Oxygen therapy dates back as far as the 1600s, when physicians of the time used atmospheric pressure to aid the healing of various ailments. Henshaw, a British clergyman, found that air pressure could be manipulated by using organ bellows in a sealed chamber. Chronic conditions seemed to benefit from a drop in pressure and acute conditions seemed to heal faster with increased pressure.
Fontaine, a French surgeon, later created a mobile chamber utilizing Henry’s law, which states that the solubility of a gas in a liquid is equivalent to the pressure of the gas over the solution, as long as no chemical reaction occurs. Fontaine’s chamber increased the patients’ blood oxygen levels while they received nitrous oxide anesthesia.
In the early 1900s, a Dr. Cunningham discovered that cardiovascular disease was treated more effectively at low altitudes than at higher elevations. Like Henshaw and Fontaine before him, he developed a chamber for increasing air pressure. His cylindrical hyperbaric chamber successfully aided some patients who were close to death. One wealthy patient who was helped with his kidney disease built Cunningham a huge hyperbaric chamber – the largest ever attempted – that had a dining area, smoker’s lounge (ironically), a bedroom, and more.
When Cunningham’s studies using this chamber proved inconclusive, funding for the project ended and the chamber was torn down in the 1920s. But oxygen therapy was not at its end. Decompression sickness was found to respond to supplementary oxygen in 1930. It took about 30 years for the technology to provide a safe delivery system for oxygen therapy for decompression sickness. Breathing oxygen under pressure forces the nitrogen that has built up from being under pressure (coal mining or deep sea diving) out of the body tissues, effectively cleansing the body from the toxic nitrogen buildup.
Another 10 years later, in the 1970s, hyperbaric oxygen therapy began to lose popularity due to some unsuccessful treatments for various ailments because better treatments (like cardiac surgery) became an option. Some physicians who used hyperbaric oxygen therapy had made a bad name for the treatment with some high-profile poor choices.
In spite of these setbacks, oxygen therapy in the form of supplemental oxygen continues to be a highly common and very successful treatment for many conditions. Hyperbaric therapies are still used for deep sea diving and other high-pressure situations. Oxygen concentrators have replaced cumbersome oxygen tanks for patients who need a higher concentration of oxygen due to respiratory diseases. And technology continues to improve for these and other uses of oxygen in medical treatment, extending life expectancy and quality of life for oxygen therapy patients.
Learn more about the History of Oxygen Therapy and Oxygen Concentrators.