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LeBron James is using a hyperbaric chamber to recover from his groin injury... But what does it actually do?

Explaining the science behind one of the tools Lakers star LeBron James uses to recover.

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James continues to recover and rehabilitate from a “left groin strain” that has kept him out since the team’s Christmas day win over the Warriors.

James has missed 10 games and counting, but no one can say he isn’t doing everything he can to try and get back on the court as soon as possible, including napping in a hyperbaric chamber:

So you might have heard of athletes using them for recovery before, but still asking “what exactly is a hyperbaric chamber, and how can it aide in the muscle tissue healing process?”

Let me explain.

A hyperbaric chamber, often called “oxygen therapy,” is a device that pumps oxygen into a confined space in order to increase the amount of oxygen within that space. The first time I heard about its use in athletic recovery — it’s common to see it used in the medical community for diabetic patients or patients with arterial disease — was Terrell Owens as he recovered from a severely sprained ankle and fractured fibula in the 2004-05 NFL season to make it back in time for the Philadelphia Eagles Super Bowl matchup against the New England Patriots.

The use of a hyperbaric chamber of athletic recovery has now become relatively common in the elite sports world. Most athletes use a single-unit chamber, similar to the one LeBron James has been using for years now:

The science behind it is as follows: Oxygen is a key source of recovery for injured tissues, and your blood carries oxygen to these tissues. Therefore, blood flow to injured tissue is critical for recovery. That’s why certain injuries that happen in poor blood flow areas can take longer to heal — in LeBron’s groin injury, that depends specifically on where his injury occurred. The end point of the muscle (“the muscle-tendon unit”) receives less blood flow than the muscle belly.

The hyperbaric chamber pumps in 100 percent oxygen into a pressurized chamber, and this combination of oxygen and added pressure leads to increased oxygen in the bloodstream.

For example, if the pressure in the chamber is two times that of the normal atmosphere (2 atmosphere absolute [ATA] compared to the normal 1 ATA), LeBron’s blood-oxygen content would be 2.5% higher than normal.

Theoretically (hint: foreshadowing), this means that there’s more oxygen being delivered to LeBron’s injured left groin, thus theoretically expediting recovery because more oxygen equals more energy for the body’s cells and repair processes.

Great in theory, but does it actually work?

The highest-quality evidence says “not sure.” There’s no definitive evidence showing that hyperbaric chambers help athletes, whether that’s expediting tissue or ligament healing or a variety of other claims (less inflammation, increased sleep quality, etc.) you may hear from people trying to sell units.

The benefits are mostly subjective, meaning the athlete perceives themselves as feeling better after using the hyperbaric chamber. However, let’s not discount how important perceived benefits can be. The placebo effect is very real and can be quite effective.

The way I see it is that the risk/reward for LeBron using a hyperbaric chamber is all reward. There’s very minimal risk in using it, it may help the actual tissue, it more than likely gives him a psychological benefit and the cost is no concern.

With all those benefits and no drawbacks, why the heck not use it? Keep getting that nap recovery in, LeBron.

Dr. Rajpal Brar has a doctorate in physical therapy from Northern Arizona University, and runs his own sports medicine and performance business, 3CB Performance, in West LA and Valencia, CA. He also works at a hospital — giving him experience with patients in the immediate healthcare setting and neurological patients (post stroke, post brain injury) — and has been practicing for 1.5 years. Brar is additionally training at UCLA’s mindful awareness research center (MARC), and analyzes the Lakers from a medical perspective for Silver Screen and Roll.

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