'Super Saturday' hero Greg Rutherford won gold thanks to a diving chamber cure… so why can't you get it on the NHSOlympic medallist Greg Rutherford credits success to oxygen treatment which helps him heal torn hamstrings at half the normal recovery time
Hyperbaric Oxygen Treatment is not yet available on the NHS
22:16 GMT, 8 December 2012
Long-jumper Greg Rutherford’s Olympic triumph, on ‘Super Saturday’, alongside his team-mates Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis, will come to define one of the greatest years in British sporting history.
‘This is what I’ve dreamt of my entire life,’ he told the BBC afterwards, voice cracking, as the sound of 80,000 cheers echoed around the stadium.
The 25-year-old, dubbed the ‘ginger ninja’, perhaps had more reason than most to feel emotional. Britain’s first long-jump gold medallist since 1964 suffered years of agony as a result of repeated hamstring tears, which came close to ending his career. His recovery and remarkable return to form is thanks to a controversial treatment – first developed in the Thirties to combat decompression sickness suffered by deep-sea divers.
In winning condition: Olympic gold medallist Greg Rutherford is on the track thanks to the oxygen treatment
Called Hyperbaric Oxygen Treatment (HBOT), the principle behind it is simple: deliver higher levels of oxygen to the body at double the normal atmospheric pressure and injuries heal faster.
The effects can be felt within days and, as Greg discovered, are transformative – yet, astonishingly, while it is often offered to elite athletes, the NHS refuses to offer it as a treatment for everyday injuries.
Greg was 16 when he first tore his hamstring – the three muscles that run up the back of the leg from the knee, enabling it to bend and straighten. About 6,000 Britons suffer similar damage to the soft tissues of the legs each year, but not all are sporting figures. Causes can range from obesity to car accidents.
‘It was at the European Athletics Junior Championships in Lithuania,’ Greg recalls. ‘I’d just launched into my jump and it popped. The pain is instant, really sharp and acute. As soon as I landed I knew it was bad and I wouldn’t be able to walk properly. I got up and had to be helped off the track, hobbling. From then on it spiralled into a never-ending cycle of tears and recovery.’
A hamstring strain occurs when one of the three muscles is stretched too far. It often happens in sports involving a lot of sudden stopping and starting, such as tennis and football. Hamstring injuries can range from a minor tear – muscles are made up of bunches of fibres, some of which can rupture if overstretched – to, more rarely, a complete break.
Golden oxygen: Long-jumper Greg suffers from repeated hamstring tears and would not have had a career in athletics – let alone an Olympic gold – without HBOT
Injury is usually treated with rest, ice to reduce swelling, painkillers and anti-inflammatory medication along with leg elevation and stretching exercises.
It can take up to ten weeks to recover fully, with severe cases that need surgery taking longer. Although one tear doesn’t necessarily leave you vulnerable to another, those playing sport regularly will always be more prone to them.
/12/08/article-2245040-16695B04000005DC-97_306x406.jpg” width=”306″ height=”406″ alt=”HBOT: Patient being taken into Hyperbaric chamber” class=”blkBorder” />
HBOT: Patient being taken into Hyperbaric chamber
WHAT IS IT
Hyperbaric Oxygen Treatment involves breathing pure oxygen while sitting in a sealed steel-and-concrete chamber. The atmospheric pressure inside is increased. Oxygen is usually delivered via a mask. Each session can take five hours and costs between 180 and 1,000.
WHAT CAN IT TREAT
Although initially used only on divers, by the Fifties the therapy was being used to treat carbon monoxide, cyanide and hydrogen sulfide poisoning. It is now advocated for an array of illnesses from strokes to multiple sclerosis (MS).
HOW DOES IT WORK
Pressurised oxygen is dissolved into the blood and body cells, tissues and fluids at up to ten times the normal concentration, stimulating blood flow and healing tissue.
WHO GETS IT ON THE NHS
Thousands of Britons with a variety of illness claim HBOT works where established drugs don’t, but the treatment is rarely offered on the NHS. Only patients with decompression illness get automatic funding.
ARE THEY THE ONLY ONES
Conditions where funding may be considered by the NHS included acute carbon-monoxide poisoning and diabetic foot ulcers. For everything else, funding is denied.
But his family and then girlfriend of eight years, Liz Rose, 24 – from whom he parted a fortnight ago – persuaded him to persevere. Determined not to let them down, he began looking for alternative treatments. United Kingdom Athletics (UKA) doctors were already aware of HBOT, and his new American coach, Dan Pfaff, had seen the effect on sportspeople in the US.
It couldn’t have come too soon. Just a month before the World Championships in 2009 – and 12 days before the qualifying rounds – Greg pulled the tendon again. He started getting up at 5am every day to travel from his home town of Milton Keynes to the London Diving Centre, where his nearest HBOT chamber was housed.
For Greg, the positive effects were almost instant. ‘You sit in a big metal tube, about 6ft wide and 5ft tall. It’s quite hot, but not unpleasant, as I’m OK in confined spaces. You breathe oxygen through a face mask. I would go in on my own but you can have others in there.’
After three days, he started to notice a difference in the way his knee felt. ‘The movement was better than it normally would be and after that it kept getting better. I couldn’t believe that something so simple as oxygen and pressure could be having this effect.’
Historic leap: The jump which got him his Super Saturday gold at the Olympic stadium this summer during the 2012 Games
Twelve days later, Greg sailed through the qualifying rounds for the World Championships and went on to break the British record for long-jump. ‘I was ecstatic,’ he says. ‘The relief was incredible. Finally, there was a solution to my problems and for the first time hope that maybe I could win gold at the Olympics.’
Although HBOT therapy means recovery time from such an injury is shortened to sometimes only ten days, it does not prevent further injury – and Greg has suffered four similar tears since. ‘It cuts down the recovery time by about 30 per cent for me. It’s still painful but for a shorter period. So now I can stay upbeat when it happens. I had my last tear in January and it was a relatively nasty one, but I remained positive, knowing I had a good chance at the Olympics.’
But evidence for HBOT is patchy, with studies showing its efficacy only in certain conditions and a randomised, double-blind controlled trial into its use in repairing adverse effects of radiotherapy by London’s Royal Marsden Hospital still ongoing. ‘It’s difficult to produce hard scientific data to back it up,’ says Dr Oliver Firth, a GP specialising in HBOT. ‘Because oxygen is so cheap, there aren’t the drug companies willing to sponsor trials into it.’
Around the world, HBOT is administered for an array of conditions including insomnia, burns, Lyme disease, stroke, multiple sclerosis and liver disease. In this country, access may soon become much harder.
‘In the past it was a real postcode lottery,’ explains Dr Pieter Bothma, an NHS consultant in anaesthesia and medical director at the London Hyperbaric Chamber. ‘But currently there are discussions taking place within specialist commissioning groups for a nationwide system that will make access more uniform but will almost certainly limit availability to very few conditions. We know it helps heal damage caused by radiotherapy, for instance. But funding is so difficult to get that we have ended up offering some very burned patients treatment for free.’
Greg believes the treatment should be offered to more NHS patients, so they can benefit as he did. Thanks to speedier recovery and a change in his jumping technique, putting less strain on the hamstrings, his optimism was realised. After nine years battling against injury, he won Britain’s 13th gold medal, with a jump of 8m 31cm.
‘I always believed it was possible but finally, finally it came true,’ he says. ‘If only everyone had the same access to the treatment that I did. I was lucky.’