If you are considering hyperbaric oxygen therapy for autism, you may be wondering: How does it work? What does a session look like? Does insurance cover it?
In this article, you will find all the answers that you’re looking for (and more) about how this treatment can benefit your autistic child.
What Is Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy?
Abbreviated as HBOT, hyperbaric oxygen therapy helps the body naturally recover from injuries and illnesses through supplying it with large amounts of oxygen.
HBOT is generally administered in a straightforward and non-invasive manner.
What does it look like?
When undergoing therapy, patients initially step into a hyperbaric oxygen chamber.
The ambient pressure in these chambers can be three times higher than the ambient pressure that’s in the air that we normally breathe. In turn, this allows patients to inhale 24% to 100% more oxygen than they would in a typical setting.
Why does it work?
Since HBOT increases the solubility of oxygen, its molecules can reach deep into the patient’s tissues and organs. In comparison to the oxygen that’s in the air that we regularly breathe, HBOT lets the molecules go 400% deeper.
As a result, the patient’s heart rate, thinking processes, and physical movements dramatically improve, and so do their other bodily functions that rely on oxygen.
There are a variety of medical issues and illnesses that impact the body’s ability to absorb oxygen.
What conditions are treated with HBOT?
In the past, deep-sea divers with decompression used to be the main group of patients that relied on this type of treatment. Their problems with decompression were addressed with hyperbaric chambers that are filled with oxygen.
However, in 2004, HBOT became a common way to treat and minimize autism spectrum disorder (ASD) symptoms.
Here are some other medical conditions that HBOT may help heal:
- Arterial gas embolism
- Athletic injuries
- Bone infections
- Certain mental conditions
- Cerebral palsy
- Delayed radiation injury
- Multiple sclerosis
- Severe carbon monoxide poisoning
- Smoke inhalation
- Treatment of gangrene
- Traumatic brain injuries
- Traumatic inadequate blood flow
- Wound healing
Each of these conditions and illnesses require HBOT sessions to be conducted in a specific way. That is to say that an HBOT session for a stroke patient looks different than the one that an autistic child would attend.
How does an HBOT therapy session work?
Generally speaking, the doctor or medical professional will have your autistic son or daughter sit or lay down in a hyperbaric chamber. As your kid begins breathing in and inhaling the oxygen, the practitioner who’s overseeing the HBOT session gradually increases the oxygen levels.
Keep in mind that clinics deliver HBOT therapy in their own way. Therefore, you want to talk to multiple providers and identify the type of session that works best for you and your son or daughter.
Here are a few questions that you should ask:
- Does the clinic’s staff specialize in or have experience working with autistic patients?
- Can you enter the oxygen chamber with your child?
- Is your kid allowed to watch a TV show or movie while they’re in the chamber?
- Can you and/or your child play with a smartphone or tablet during the session?
Another aspect to inquire about is the type of chamber that the clinic uses.
Types of Hyperbaric Oxygen Chambers
The following are the two main types of HBOT chambers:
Monoplace Hyperbaric Chambers
In short, this chamber has the appearance of a long plastic tube that’s designed to fit one person.
Multiplace chambers are larger and can accommodate two or more patients simultaneously.
Both types of chambers provide you with the same treatment. With a multiplace chamber, however, a patient would have to use a mask or hood to breathe pure oxygen.
Equally as important is that professional clinics rely on medical-grade HBOT chambers that deliver air with a 100% oxygen level. The ambient air in mild chambers (mHBOT), which may be installed at home, only contains 21% oxygen due its lower ambient pressure.
You want to talk to your autistic child’s doctor to determine the most appropriate chamber for them.
Do you need a prescription for HBOT?
Yes, a doctor’s prescription is required to receive HBOT treatment.
How can HBOT help in the treatment of ASD?
HBOT assists autistic patients with the following:
Neuroinflammation is considered to be one of the conditions that influences and causes ASD symptoms.
To clarify, with neuroinflammation, the brain and spinal cord get inflamed as a response to certain factors or stressful events. In turn, patients could end up developing cerebral hypoperfusion (a medical problem that’s characterized by an inadequate blood flow to the brain).
Autistic children that suffer from neuroinflammation-induced hypoperfusion tend to experience the following:
- Communication barriers
- Diminished or limited cognitive abilities
- Problematic social interactions
- They struggle with focusing and paying attention
Needless to say, HBOT therapy is one of the most effective ways for enhancing the quality of the brain’s blood flow and minimizing the symptoms of neuroinflammation and hypoperfusion.
In the same vein, research has shown that HBOT therapy can help autistic kids with their movements and cognitive capabilities. This allows them to get better at acquiring new skills, managing their behaviors, and initiating conversations spontaneously.
Improve Mitochondrial Dysfunction
Unfortunately, mitochondrial weakness is a common condition among children with ASD. It leads the patient to have low energy levels that could make their thinking process and bodily functions sluggish.
On the plus side, recent studies have indicated that HBOT therapy improves mitochondrial functions. Consequently, it can reduce autism symptoms and enhance an autistic child’s motor skills and balance.
Reduce Oxidative Stress
Oxidative stress results in brain tissue damage and a severely slower metabolism. This causes the patient to develop and show ASD symptoms.
Oxidative stress occurs when the amount of free radicals and antioxidants in the body becomes imbalanced. However, according to the latest research, HBOT therapy enables the body to produce antioxidant enzymes that prevent the cells from oxidative stress.
When it comes to ASD symptoms, treating oxidative stress will improve your autistic son or daughter’s social skills, mood, and memory.
This is alongside the other general benefits that HBOT therapy allows them to attain.
Other Benefits of HBOT
Here are a few medical uses to HBOT therapy:
- Abating anaerobic gut microbe colonies in a patient’s body
- Decreasing seizure activity
- Increasing glutathione production
- Lessening gut inflammation and bloating
- Remedying a leaky gut through healing the intestinal lining
- Speeding up the detoxification of heavy metals
- Strengthening and enhancing the immune system
These benefits can be realized by autistic patients and neurotypical ones who suffer from other conditions.
Does hyperbaric oxygen therapy work for autism?
So far, the studies that looked at the link between HBOT therapy and ASD symptoms have produced mixed results, and medical professionals are still conducting more research.
Some studies indicate that HBOT therapy can decrease autism-induced brain and gastrointestinal system inflammations. In fact, both doctors and parents of autistic children reported that HBOT therapy had the following boons:
- Better quality of sleep
- Enhanced cognitive capabilities
- Improvements in bowel movements
- Improvements in focusing and maintaining attention
- More affectionate and calm behaviors
- Reduced sensory problems and issues
- Refined and improved communication skills
- A stronger connection between the autistic child and their family
With that being said, a lot of researchers believe that there isn’t enough empirical evidence to conclude that HBOT therapy is effective for children with ASD.
They specifically note that the existing research has these limitations:
- The studies aren’t accurate because they aren’t duplicated across or extended to the at-large autistic population (in other words, only a few patients were tested on).
- Concurrent treatments that are taken alongside HBOT therapy might falsely attribute the improvement in symptoms to the latter.
- Placebo effects may have impacted the findings and preciseness of certain studies.
- Rigorous experimental controls and sound scientific practices are lacking.
- While the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorized using HBOT therapy to treat various medical conditions, they haven’t approved it as a safe autism treatment due to the insufficient scientific proof of its effectiveness.
Is hyperbaric oxygen therapy safe for autistic children?
In general, HBOT therapy is safe for children, and they can tolerate air with a 100% oxygen level for up to 2 hours per day at a maximum pressure of 1.5 atm.
Yet, just as with any other medical treatment, HBOT is occasionally accompanied by undesirable side effects.
Here are several of the main medical risks of hyperbaric oxygen therapy:
Sinuses are parts of the skull that are filled with air. HBOT therapy may produce unequal levels of air pressure across the sinuses.
Two common sinus damage signs are bleeding in the sinuses and severe pain.
Fluid Buildup in the Middle Ear
While HBOT doesn’t directly cause this problem, improper attempts to balance the air pressure that’s in the middle ear could unintentionally damage the membranes that separate it from the inner ear (which is filled with fluids).
When this happens, the fluids build up in the middle ear and create hearing impairments.
Lung damage is a very rare HBOT side effect, and it mostly impacts severely-ill patients who require the treatment throughout the day or on an ongoing basis.
When the lung takes in air with highly-concentrated oxygen levels for several consecutive hours, a patient might experience chest pain and difficulty breathing.
Oxygen poisoning can give rise to seizures because it’s toxic to the central nervous system.
However, oxygen poisoning is an infrequent HBOT side effect, and it primarily impacts patients that suffer from seizure disorders and low blood sugar (hypoglycemia).
Reversible Myopia occurs when a patient’s nearsightedness (myopia) gets worse. As the name suggests, this HBOT side effect (brought about by changes in the eye lens’s shape) is reversible and temporary.
Some patients experience claustrophobia when they enter the small, fenced off oxygen chamber. This can be addressed by using a larger, multi-place chamber.
At times, those with severe claustrophobia might have to be sedated before their session.
How long do hyperbaric oxygen therapy sessions last?
The length of a typical HBOT session is between 90 minutes and 2 hours.
How many HBOT sessions are needed for autistic children?
In general, kids with ASD need to undergo 20 to 40 treatment sessions.
Is hyperbaric oxygen therapy covered by insurance?
Whether or not your insurance will cover HBOT therapy depends on multiple factors. You may want to carefully consider how they apply to your and your autistic child’s situation.
After all, paying out of pocket for this treatment is very expensive. An individual session can cost up to $250, which adds up to $10,000 for 40 sessions.
First of all, Medicare and private insurance companies might ask you to provide an HBOT treatment authorization in order to cover it.
Secondly, certain insurers (among them are BlueCross BlueShield, Cigna, Humana, and United Healthcare) will pay for your child’s HBOT sessions as long as they’re medically necessary. This includes for off-label conditions like autism.
Keep in mind that the coverage for these conditions could still get denied by some insurance carriers, while others may require you to initially pay an out-of-pocket deductible.
Third, given that the FDA hasn’t approved HBOT as a treatment for autism and considers it to be an experimental medication, Medicaid and private insurance companies typically do not cover it without the appropriate authorization.
Other Therapy Options for Autistic Children
If your insurance or Medicaid plan doesn’t pay for your HBOT costs or if your son or daughter has a health issue that could be exacerbated by oxygen treatment, you have alternative options.
With ABA therapy (which stands for applied behavior analysis), a trained and licensed practitioner can work with your kid on managing their ASD symptoms, improving their skills, and attaining a lot of the benefits that they would gain from HBOT treatment.
Above all, the majority of insurance plans and Medicaid will cover ABA therapy since it is the most commonly-used and widely-accepted ASD treatment.
If you are ready to work with the best ABA therapy provider in New York, New Jersey or Indiana, give us a call at (732) 402-0297. Our dedicated team is ready to help and we will treat you like family.