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Costa Rica opens oxygen therapy center

Costa Rica always seems to be importing the latest health trends. Now doctors want patients to relax and enjoy some fresh air, from inside an oxygen chamber.

Late last month, the country inaugurated the Centro Hiperbárico del Este in La Sabana, in western San José. The center is designed to treat patients through a short stay in a hyperbaric chamber. 

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy places patients inside a large tube for an hour or two and delivers them 100 percent oxygen. The treatment was long used as a cure for decompression sickness for scuba divers, but now it’s also becoming popular for healing wounds such as ones caused by diabetes, bone infections or trauma injuries.

“It works. It’s approved medicine. It’s well used in the United States,” Andres Bolaños, a doctor at the new hyperbaric center, said.

The chambers also have grown more popular with top athletes in recent years. The world’s No. 1 tennis player, Novak Djokovic, and NFL quarterback Tim Tebow have both been reported to be fans of oxygen treatment in order to recover better from training.

Still, studies are infrequent on the effectiveness of the treatment. The intense flow of oxygen is supposed to encourage cell growth, new blood vessels and better circulation in the body. Studies have shown that in diabetes patients, for example, oxygen therapy reduces the number of amputations caused by foot ulcers. But critics believe the studies aren’t specific enough and need to be repeated more frequently.

Nevertheless, some believe the treatment could help with Costa Rica’s growing diabetes problem. The International Diabetes Federation says Costa Rica has 271,210 diabetics from the ages of 20 to 79.

Bolaños said the type of chamber imported from the U.S. is the latest model and the first of its kind in Costa Rica. The capsule lets patients choose what to watch on TV in the room and also has internal speakers for listening to music.

Bolaños said sessions, which last up to two hours per day, cost $150 (although discounts can be applied for frequent use of the machine). Patients often must undergo the treatment 10 to 60 times before a session is complete. Local hospitals La Católica and Clínica Bíblica, also offer the therapy.

Cuauhtémoc Sánchez, a Mexican doctor who attended the center’s inauguration on Oct. 25, said the therapy has some side effects. The most common problem is claustrophobia caused by confinement for one to two hours inside the enclosed space. Another common problem is middle ear trauma, which Sánchez described as the feeling of ears “popping,” similar to what happens while flying on an airplane.  A less common, but more dangerous, problem is “oxygen toxicity.” But most treatments do not use high enough levels of oxygen to cause poisoning, Sánchez said.

Certain conditions like heart problems can make the procedure risky.

The treatment is available for all ages from premature babies to the elderly. However, the center only takes patients who have been referred to the clinic by a general practitioner.

Sánchez said if hyperbaric oxygen therapy can help improve a bothersome ailment, it’s worth taking a closer look at the procedure.

“Evaluate the benefits of your treatment,” Sanchez said. “I think it’s like any other part of medicine. You’ve got to be confident in your position and [receive] good care.”

For more information on the treatment center, visit: or call 2256-6037.

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