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For 50 years, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved hyperbaric therapy as a treatment for a variety of conditions. This treatment can deliver a large amount of oxygen to the brain. While it has been used to treat some stroke victims, it has still not been approved for use as a treatment for traumatic brain injuries. That does not necessarily mean it’s not effective.
Traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) are serious conditions that can cause lifelong complications. Young athletes, children, and the elderly are particularly vulnerable to TBIs. Unfortunately, studies by the CDC indicate the rate of TBI-related emergency room visits has increased substantially.
For those suffering severe consequences of a TBI, there are few treatment options besides surgery and lengthy rehabilitation programs. Recent developments suggest hyperbaric oxygen therapy may be a convenient and effective treatment.
What is Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy?
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) has been used since the early 1900s, although the notion existed before that. It is best known as a treatment for decompression sickness, which occurs when scuba divers emerge from the water’s depths too quickly.
In treatments, patients breathe in pure oxygen. If the therapy is conducted in a hyperbaric chamber, the air is pressurized, forcing occupants to inhale more oxygen than normal. Patients can also receive oxygen through masks or tubes.
However, medical personnel uses HBOT for more than just decompression sickness. It is FDA approved to treat many conditions, including:
- Carbon monoxide poisoning
- Brain abscesses
In addition to this list, some researchers argue it has benefits beyond the currently-accepted wounds and illnesses.
About Traumatic Brain Injuries
Traumatic brain injuries occur when there is a blow to the head. As a result, the brain moves within the skull. Although the brain is protected by bone, layers of membrane and fluid, sometimes these elements are not enough to hold the organ in place during a forceful jolt. If the brain is damaged during this occurrence, an individual has a TBI.
TBIs can be mild or severe in nature. Mild TBIs generally disappear within a couple of days or weeks. Severe TBIs have startling, and often permanent, consequences.
Symptoms of TBIs vary and can appear directly after the incident or weeks afterward. These can include headaches, a cerebral spinal fluid leak from the nose and ears, confusion, and agitation. Some people with TBIs also experience weakness and numbing or tingling sensations.
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, dizziness, or a loss of consciousness, consider seeing a doctor immediately. A TBI isn’t something you want to wait and see if it’s going to go away on its own. You may make the injury more severe in the process.
How HBOT Therapy Can Help
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is FDA approved for 13 conditions, but the science behind the therapy and healing process shows there is room for many more. HBOT works by forcing patients to breathe in more oxygen than they would regularly. The increased percentage of oxygen in the body expedites the healing process.
Problems Caused by TBIs
For individuals with TBIs, inflammation can create multiple problems. In locations where the brain was impacted, contusions can occur and reduce the blood flow, thereby endangering other parts of the brain. Neurons, nerve cells that carry messages between the brain and body, may also be unable to complete their tasks.
How Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy Works
HBOT triggers the healing processes, encouraging proper blood flow, reducing inflammation, and boosting the immune system. As a result, the issues that are creating mild and severe symptoms are alleviated.
One patient who underwent HBOT decades after his TBI showed improved brain scan results, and human and animal testing shows similar results. In previous studies, patients have reported improved memory, broader vocabularies, and an increase in emotional stability. They have also reported less pressure from cerebrospinal fluid and reduced inflammation.
Even with the substantial evidence indicating the therapy’s helpfulness in treating TBIs, because of the inability to provide double-blind placebo-controlled trials, it is not approved by the FDA. That doesn’t mean it won’t be approved in the future. Talk to your doctor about whether or not this treatment may be right for you.
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is safe when administered correctly. When the body is overwhelmed with oxygen, negative repercussions can occur, including further brain damage. For this reason, doctors supply short bursts of oxygen at lower levels, which keeps the procedure safe.
“Research suggests TBI treatment through hyperbaric oxygen therapy is a convenient and effective option for individuals with TBIs,” concludes one health expert. Very few complications occur during this treatment, and the medical community agrees HBOT is generally safe.
What You Should Expect During HBOT
HBOT is usually an outpatient procedure. Some individuals may even be able to use it at home after receiving proper training. Most hospitals and clinics will have two treatment options for patients. The first requires patients to lie on a table that inserts into a tube. The second includes chambers where multiple patients can sit together to breathe in the oxygen-rich air.
The length of the therapy and each session depends on your specific needs. Most last a couple of hours. The number of sessions can range from one or two to dozens. Yawn or swallow periodically throughout the procedure to dispel the pressure in your ears. Afterward, you can continue with normal activities.
Complications of HBOT
While many people benefit from hyperbaric oxygen therapy, complications do occur. In some cases, these complications can be devastating. These complications include:
- Damage to your sinuses
- Damage to your lungs
- Vision problems
- Fluid in the ear or burst eardrum
- Oxygen poisoning
Many people have filed medical negligence lawsuits after being injured during HBOT or because they got the treatment when it was unnecessary. You may want to contact a personal injury lawyer to discuss your options if you are injured.
Current treatment for severe TBIs is limited, so HBOT provides an exciting new method to address patient concerns. As technology continues to develop, we can only hope further advancements will continue to solve the complications TBIs create.