7 Helium Uses in Medicine – Properties – Medical Fields

For some of you, we believe you have already known this second ‘noble gas’ called helium. If you don’t know it yet, basically it is a chemical element located right after the hydrogen in the periodic table. It has two isotope, which is Helium-3 (with 1 neutron) and Helium-4 (with two neutrons). This gas is the second lightest and most abundant element in our observable universe.

Commonly, this noble gas is associated with its use to fill up a hot air balloon to make it fly. But do you know that actually, this so-called noble gas is very important in the medicinal field? As important as it is, lots of doctor in the United States and another countries are actually asking to stop using helium as a gas to fill up our hot air balloon. They are asking for more helium to be used in the medicinal field. That must happen for some reasons. What makes helium so important? What roles does helium play in our medicinal field? Indeed, here are helium uses in medical field. 

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1. The Magnetic Resonance Imaging Device

First and foremost, in medicinal field, we use liquid helium for our magnetic resonance imaging devices. We need and use is as a cooling component for the superconducting magnets in our MRI. A superconducting magnet is a critical component in MRI devices. Even though MRI scanners vary in shape and size, the basic design is just the same. The patient is pushed into a tube that’s about 60 centimeters in diameter.

Most MRI systems use a superconducting magnet consisting of many coils or winding of wires through which a current of electricity passed and creating a magnetic field up to 2.0 tesla. To maintain such magnetic field a great deal of energy is needed. We achieve that, by reducing the resistance in the wires to almost zero. The way we do it is by cooling it down, freezing it by helium. So you can imagine if we don’t have helium to freeze it, then we would need a large amount of energy to keep our MRI running. In another word, more money is also needed. MRI scanning would then become so expensive.

Because the price of helium is relatively low and stable, it has contributed to the rapid growth of MRI as a device to diagnose patients in the hospital. The United States, for example, has achieved a significant growth in its health care services because of the advance growth from MRI devices. Not only because helium is cheap, but also because we have so many heliums, so we can build more MRI devices with ease.

Currently, we have no chemical elements or other substitutes for helium as a cooling ‘machine’ for our MRI devices. Some manufacturers have created another superconducting wires alternative such as a high-temperature superconducting wire, but it is not likely to be a viable alternative to conventional superconductors that we have used in MRI devices. High-temperature superconducting wire cost 500 times more than conventional niobium-titanium superconducting wire.

Although the price might decrease in the future, but the mechanical and electrical properties of high-temperature superconducting wire would have to be improved. Because we need to use them economically for this medical application. We need to save a lot of money for other resources. While it is true that manufacturers have also created a new system to reduce the amount of helium needed for their MRI machines, but the place of helium in MRI scanner is still irreplaceable.

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2. Breathing Gas Mixtures

Have you ever see a deep-sea diver who breathed from a blue colored tube? Do you know what’s inside there? What they breathed in is actually not only an oxygen gasses. There is a helium there too. Basically, mixtures of helium and oxygen are what they breathed in. Not only deep-sea divers but also individuals who work under high atmospheric pressures for extended periods of time also use a helium-oxygen gasses to breathe.

Helium is used because helium is absorbed and released by human tissue faster than other elements, such as nitrogen. It makes diving can last longer with shorter decompression times. The same thing also applied to the medicinal field, in which we use the helium-oxygen mixture to help patients who have respiratory distress to breathe more easily.

Helium and oxygen, are usually combined with some proportion. The proportion of helium is bigger compared to the oxygen. Helium is a rare, chemically and physiologically inert gas that is relatively insoluble in body fluids, more viscous and eight times less dense than oxygen. That is why it allows patients to breathe more freely by reducing their work of breathing while at the same time improving their comfort.

Historically, Barach was the first person to propose using oxygen-helium mixtures as a therapeutic gas in 1934. He proposed it because he found that helium-oxygen mixture (79% helium and 21% oxygen in proportion) only has a one-third weight compared with regular air. He proposed that using this lighter gas could improve the flow of oxygen in patients with asthma and upper airway obstruction. After 1934, there was a decline of interest in the clinical use of helium temporarily because of some events. But the interest in helium rose again after the 1980s. It happens because there was an increase of death by asthma sickness.

Later, researchers and scientist in medical field found that helium-oxygen mixtures are effective to help patients with many different respiratory problems. It covers patients with upper airway obstruction, post-extubation syndrome, croup, asthma, bronchiolitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and acute respiratory distress syndrome. In infants with moderate to severe RSV bronchiolitis, this compound reduced the accompanying tachycardia and tachypnea.

It also improves their clinical scores. Furthermore, it also improves the elimination of carbon dioxide. This proves that helium and oxygen mixtures are far more impressive and effective, rather than nitrogen and oxygen mixture. Even its other name, which is heliox, sound cool isn’t it?

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3. Helium Applications in Surgery

Brackman et. al, found that helium pneumoperitoneum could ameliorate hypercarbia and acidosis associated with carbon dioxide insufflation during laparoscopic gastric bypass in pigs in 2003. Laparoscopic surgery requires distending the abdomen via insufflation with carbon dioxide gas. It is done to visualize abdominal structures and provide space for the manipulation of the medical instrument.

Because of that, carbon dioxide gasses could alter physiologic parameters. It happens because carbon dioxide gas was absorbed by the peritoneum that could complicate surgery. Changes to the heart and lungs are some of the complications that could happen because of the absorbance of carbon dioxide gas. However, by using helium, the cardiopulmonary were fewer and therefore safer to use it laparoscopic surgery.

Researchers have found that helium is a safe alternative as an insufflant in laparoscopic renal surgery for high-risk patients. It greatly helps patients who suffer from difficulty clearing carbon dioxide gas from their bloodstream. It covers such patients with congestive heart failure, chronic hypoxia, malignant hyperthermia, and else. Further research has explored the promising use of helium as an alternative of abdominal insufflant to carbon dioxide. Waseda et. al, also found that helium pneumoperitoneum also improve the recovery of postoperative gastrointestinal motility. It happens because the reduction of hypercapnia and acidosis helium pneumoperitoneum has compared to carbon dioxide pneumoperitoneum.

We also use another helium-based technology, such as helium plasma technology in abdominal and laparoscopic surgery. In those surgeries, we use helium plasma in the process of thermal coagulation of tissues. This application will enhance visualization of bleeding sites. It will also clear the bleeding from the surgical field. Thus, one of helium uses in medicine.

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More Helium Uses in Medical Fields

Further applications and research of helium applications in medical fields and helium uses in medicine. 

  1. Researchers have explored and researched the applications of helium throughout the years. Researchers have made further discoveries. It could be a one step closer to utilize helium in another ways in medical field. We have discovered some of the helium potential uses. One of them, is in an in vitro study of Schwann cells of old rats.
  2. Then the researchers isolate the cells from sciatic nerves of 4-5 days old rats. Researchers then irradiate those cells with a helium-neon laser. After that treatments, researchers have found that the irradiating process caused proliferation of the cells in a dose dependent manner. It means that the cells are growing. This discovery is promising. Because it means we have a possibility to restore neuron of patients with a brain injury, or else. However, we have to do further research in regard on how we could utilize helium to do that.
  3. We have discovered that helium has many uses. But there is also some study suggesting that helium brings harm to neuron survival after hypoxia. Not only that, that study also suggested that helium brings harm to human tubular kidney cells. Rivzi et.al are the one who discovered it. However, in different study, by Coburn et. al., they found that in an in vitro model of treating patients with traumatic brain injury using helium at elevated pressures, it resulted in a neuroprotective effects. It means the neuron were protected from a degeneration.
  4. Other studies found another effects of helium to neuron. They found that rats with middle cerebral artery occlusion had decreased its infarct size and also improved its neurological outcome. Researchers found that after treated the rats with helium below body temperature. However if we treated it with helium at 33 degree celsius, the neuroprotective effects was abolished. Another researchers also concluded that helium brings beneficial effect to hypothermia.

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We still have many questions left in regard to how far helium could be utilized. We also have lots of questions on how damaging helium is for our body, or our environment. We still have to do further research. But regardless of what lies ahead, the importance of helium in our medical fields is unquestionable. We hope this knowledge will give you some new insights. Thank you for reading this article, see you next time!

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