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Myth Busting: Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy to Treat Cerebral Palsy

Nov 03, 2014

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) is the use of oxygen at concentrations and pressures higher than those in daily life as a form of treatment for a health problem. The treatment has been scientifically proven to be effective for conditions such as carbon monoxide poisoning, decompression sickness and difficult-to-treat infections in parts of the body with poor blood supply.

HBOT has also been proposed for cerebral palsy. This idea is based on the theory that, among damaged brain cells, there are inactive or dormant cells that have the potential to recover. Some people think that pressurized oxygen reactivates the dormant cells so they can function normally. Unfortunately, that is a peculiar interpretation of biology that is not supported by research.

HBOT and Cerebral Palsy: Just the Facts

Authors of several publications have demonstrated that for cerebral palsy, HBOT is no better than pressurized air. For instance, Collet and colleagues (2001), and more recently Lacey and colleagues (2012), carried out elegantly designed placebo-controlled trials – the highest quality of research possible. In the studies, children with cerebral palsy were exposed to either pressurized oxygen or pressurized regular air. There were no differences between the two groups in any of the outcomes measured. That means that HBOT is no more effective than compressed room air for the management of symptoms associated with cerebral palsy.

In spite of the shortage of evidence to support them, reports touting the benefits of HBOT for the management of cerebral palsy continue to surface. Not surprisingly, the reports are either testimonials or single-patient, poorly designed experiments from HBOT facilities. In a 2013 article, Novak and Badawi analyze all appropriately obtained scientific data on the subject and once again concluded that “hyperbaric oxygen does not have a clinically important effect on gross motor and self-care function in children with cerebral palsy.”

It is also important to mention that HBOT is not risk-free. Potential side effects of HBOT include ear pain, tympanic membrane perforation, lung collapse and seizures. These are in addition to the inherent risk of fire inside a closed chamber filled with oxygen, which in high concentrations is a highly flammable gas.

As pediatricians, it is our responsibility to warn well-meaning parents about so-called “therapies” that are based on, at best, anecdotal evidence and, at times, the rather unusual ideas about the biology of the health conditions to which they are being applied.

If your child has cerebral palsy, don’t put your faith in HBOT. Instead of trying untested — and possibly dangerous — therapies, talk with your child’s doctor about the best options for your child’s care. You can learn more about treatment for cerebral palsy at our website or by speaking with one of the physicians in our Cerebral Palsy Program.

Featured Expert

Nationwide Children's Hospital Medical Professional
Pedro Weisleder, MD

Pedro Weisleder, MD, PhD, is an attending pediatric neurologist at Nationwide Children's Hospital. He is Professor of Clinical Pediatrics and Director of the Pediatric Neurology Residency Program at The Ohio State University College of Medicine.

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700 Children’s® features the most current pediatric health care information and research from our pediatric experts – physicians and specialists who have seen it all. Many of them are parents and bring a special understanding to what our patients and families experience. If you have a child – or care for a child – 700 Children’s was created especially for you.