An oxygen chamber ended this woman's agony – so why is the NHS hellbent on axing them
11:21 GMT, 19 March 2012
Novelist Jae De Wylde is no longer eligible for treatment
For Jae De Wylde, unrelenting pain was an unwelcome part of life. It began in 2004 after a simple operation to fix a knee-tendon injury triggered the nerve condition reflex sympathetic dystrophy, in which a virus enters the nervous system, causing pain throughout the body. It is incurable and usually gets worse over time.
The 53-year-old novelist from Bourne, Lincolnshire, says: ‘I took painkillers and tried physiotherapy, osteopathy and acupuncture but nothing worked. At its worst, I was hobbling around with a stick. My GP didn’t know how to help.’
Then, in 2006, Jae’s NHS specialist referred her for sessions of a treatment invented in the Thirties to treat deep-sea divers suffering from decompression sickness. It brought an end to her pain and she no longer needed medicine.
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT)
involves breathing pure oxygen while sitting in a sealed steel and
concrete chamber. The atmospheric pressure inside is increased by
pumping air, which cannot escape, into the chamber. The oxygen is
usually delivered via a mask.
Each session, which can take up to five hours, costs between 180 and 1,000.
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An HBOT chamber in a hospital
In July 2008, the Public Health Commissioning Network drafted a national policy with a traffic-light code to classify conditions recognised as benefiting from the therapy.
Only patients with decompression illness received the green light and automatic funding. Amber conditions – meaning funding may be considered on a case-by-case basis – included acute carbon-monoxide poisoning and diabetic foot ulcers. Everything else was coded red, advising that funding should be denied.
The policy was adopted by all PCTs in the East of England and one PCT in London, much to the frustration of Philip Sayer, managing director of London Hyperbaric Medicine.
‘The sole purpose was to save money,’ he says. ‘In the group classified as red were eight conditions we had treated for a decade and for which we had almost always received funding from PCTs.’
MS National Therapy Centres runs dozens of chambers and have carried out more than two million oxygen treatment sessions on sufferers.
It expects users to become members of the centres, and make a minimum monthly donations of 20 to fund the treatment.
The charity believes that HBOT helps dilated and leaky bloody vessels symptomatic of sufferers to constrict back to normal size, thereby limiting nerve damage.
But Sayer points out: ‘They don’t have doctors and nurses and it is questionable as to whether they comply with health and safety requirements.’
Last November, as part of the new NHS Bill, the NHS Commissioning Board set up a transition team to ascertain which conditions should be tackled with HBOT.
‘For the first time in 12 years they are forming clinical reference groups for specialist services,’ says Sayer. ‘Hopefully, they will come up with a national policy to implement.’
Jae, whose debut novel, The Thinking Tank, was inspired by her experiences in an oxygen chamber, believes that the therapy saved her from a lifetime of unremitting pain.
‘I don’t doubt for a second how efficient HBOT is,’ she says.