JONESBORO -- Hyperbarics, or the use of comressed air in a pressurized chamber, is well-known for improving the healing of wounds. But, does this therapy offer hope to thousands of children diagnosed with autism? The discussion is one that led us to the newest hyperbaric chamber in Northeast Arkansas not associated with a hospital.
Eight-year-old Levi Smith is moderately autistic.
"His eyeballs see fine and his ears hear fine, but his brain messes it all up," explained Corey Smith, Levi's mother.
Looking for ways to help Levi's development, Corey took her son all the way to Miracle Mountain in North Carolina to use their hyperbaric chambers.
"We did our first 40 sessions in North Carolina," said Corey. "Forty sessions, forty dives."
Dives refer to time spent in a pressurized chamber like this now found at the Hyperbaric Center of Northeast Arkansas, located at Ziegler Chiropractic.
"Right away, he started going down stairs faster," said Corey.
Small steps, Dr. Ziegler said, are making for big improvements.
"Usually with autistic kids we see some improvement usually around their twentieth or thirtieth dive session, " Dr. Rob Ziegler.
So why is hyperbaric oxygen different than natural oxygen found in the air? Well this is pressurized. The pressurized chamber allows for extra oxygen to get into the tissues of the body. Scans have shown increased activity in the brains of people with autism after exposure to hyperbarics. Diminished blood flow to parts of the brain is associated with autism and a lack of social interaction.
"The thing that I really like the best is that instead of going off and doing things by himself all the time, which it seemed like that was what he preferred, now he's with us," said Corey.
It's not cheap. A dive, which typically lasts an hour, averages $125 for a child, $150 for an adult. However, hyperbaric chambers elsewhere can cost even far more. Most parents of autistic children have to pay out of pocket because insurance does not cover it. However, other medical conditions qualify.
"Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is reimbursed through certain conditions, and those conditions are related to trauma, infection and diabetic ulcers where people have foot ulcerations or spider bites," explained Dr. Ziegler
Scary looking--the machine itself is actually child friendly. First the patient puts on a neck ring which will connect to a hood and the oxygen. Parents can even climb in and stay with their child.
"It takes about ten minutes to reach pressure--it takes about ten minutes to get to one and a half atmosphere--the parent put the hood on the children and they will turn the oxygen on outside," said Dr. Ziegler.
All the while, Levi plays video games inside what he calls "the rocket ship." Levi is also on a strict diet and vitamin regimin. His mother says it's all expensive, but well worth the cost to see his improvement.
"My husband has often said, God could have given him to millionaires, but he gave him to us, so we'll do what we can," said Corey
There are several skeptics in the medical community who are not totally convinced that the hyperbaric chambers make a difference for autistic children because there have not been widespread studies to that effect. So time will tell us more and more studies are are made available.