• By: Hank Stout
  • Published: April 2014

A traumatic brain injury (or “TBI”) can have devastating, life-long effects. Many people who have suffered a TBI struggle with balance and coordination, changes in mood or personality, memory loss, and other difficulties. Because the effect of a TBI on the brain and possible treatments are not yet fully understood, some are turning to experimental treatments for help.

Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy: How it Works

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is one such treatment. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy involves breathing pure oxygen in a controlled setting, such as a pressurized room or chamber. During the treatment, air pressure is raised to levels up to three times as high as normal air pressure. As a result, the lungs can take in up to three times more oxygen that would be possible under normal conditions. The blood then carries the oxygen through the body, simulating the release of substances that promote healing.

For years, hyperbaric oxygen therapy has been used to treat decompression sickness (also known as “the bends”), which is a hazard of scuba diving. It is also considered a well-established treatment for serious infections and wounds that won’t heal as a result of diabetes or radiation treatment.

Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy: Treating TBI

Whether hyperbaric oxygen therapy is an effective treatment for traumatic brain injury has been the subject of considerable debate amongst medical professionals and researchers. Some studies suggest that hyperbaric oxygen therapy does not help with TBI, while others have arrived at the opposite conclusion. The treatment is legal, but it is not sanctioned by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in the treatment of traumatic brain injuries.

Despite these conflicting reports, some veterans are turning to hyperbaric oxygen therapy after suffering a traumatic brain injury during combat. One physician administering hyperbaric oxygen therapy to veterans, Dr. Julie Stapleton, said that she’s seen positive results in 80 percent of her patients. She claims that the treatments can help with the speed of mental processing, attention, memory, mood, sleep, and headaches.

Because health insurance providers do not cover hyperbaric oxygen therapy for the treatment of TBI, it can be very difficult (if not impossible) for some TBI victims to obtain treatment. This has lead some advocates to lobby state governments for funding and support of hyperbaric oxygen therapy research.

FDA Encourages Consumers to Use Caution

The FDA cautions consumers that hyperbaric oxygen therapy has not been proven to treat brain injury, and urges those considering hyperbaric oxygen therapy to discuss all possible options with a health care professional. “Your healthcare professional can help you determine which treatment is your best option,” says the FDA.

If you are concerned about the possibility of a traumatic brain injury in a loved one, seek immediate medical assistance. Some of the signs of TBI include a loss of consciousness, memory loss, a persistent headache, or nausea and vomiting. TBI are typically the result of a blow or jolt to the head.

It will be interesting to see whether hyperbaric oxygen therapy is approved by the FDA for the treatment of TBI in the future. In the meantime, it is being researched by a number of medical institutions. Hopefully, doctors will continue to gain insight as to the effectiveness of the treatment from TBI  victims who undergo hyperbaric oxygen therapy.

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