Hyperbaric Treatment for Traumatic Brain Injuries
Thousands of people around the country sustain traumatic brain injuries, mild traumatic brain injuries, and concussions each year. Emergency departments, on average, see more than 7,500 such patients each day. An individual concussion may appear with no symptoms; when a person sustains multiple concussions from sports or other activities, however, they tend to add up to turn traumatic. One in five people who suffer from these serious concussions experience troublesome symptoms that last months or years.
These symptoms, which range from fatigue and headaches, to brain fog and depression, are together known as post-concussion syndrome, and tend to be difficult to treat. Symptomatic treatment with antidepressants and painkillers is often taken up, but it doesn’t help patients heal the brain injuries at the root of the condition.
Increasingly, medical researchers and physicians are turning to pure oxygen as a way to treat concussions. Hyperbaric treatment, as it is known, places patients in an atmosphere of pure, high-pressure oxygen, to stimulate brain regeneration and healing.
The history of hyperbaric therapy
Researchers at Tel Aviv University in Israel find that oxygen deficiency is one fundamental reason why brain injuries heal as slowly as they do. Hyperbaric treatment corrects this situation by making greater quantities of oxygen available to the brain.
Compressed air was first applied to medical treatment more than two centuries ago. It was in the year 1917, however, that engineers in Germany first designed pressurized oxygen chambers for medical treatment. The initial application was in the treatment of decompression sickness, an affliction of undersea divers who surface too quickly. Ever since 1970, the FDA has approved hyperbaric therapy for the treatment of burns, slow-healing wounds, and carbon monoxide poisoning. It’s only in the past decade that doctors around the world have begun applying hyperbaric therapy to the treatment of concussions.
Treating concussions from sports-related injuries, traffic accidents, and war
The human brain, by nature, tends to be particularly vulnerable when injured. It’s an organ that typically requires a great deal of oxygen and energy in the course of normal function. These requirements only expand in the event of an injury. Unfortunately, concussions usually involve damage to blood vessels in the brain, damage that makes it hard for them to supply the brain with the blood needed. Injured brain cells don’t usually die; instead, they live on in impaired condition for years. Hyperbaric therapy, even when it is administered years after a person sustains a concussion, can potentially deliver improvements to the healing process.
Doctors treating concussions with hyperbaric oxygen typically prescribe about 50 hours in a hyperbaric chamber, spread out over three months. In each session, the patient is made to sit or lie down in a chamber filled with pure oxygen, pressurized to twice the level of normal atmospheric pressure. The oxygen in the environment in the chamber, and the high levels of pressure set, cause the lungs to absorb ten times as much oxygen as they normally would, and deliver it to the brain.
How does hyperbaric therapy help?
The exact process by which hyperbaric oxygen helps heal concussions is unclear. Researchers, however, suggest the possibility that there are multiple biological pathways involved. To begin, a healthy supply of oxygen appears to activate genes that are specifically linked to the repair of injured brain tissue. Generous supplies of oxygen also make larger numbers of stem cells available to sites in the brain that require healing. They step up activity in the mitochondria in brain cells, as well, to boost energy availability. Scientists are of the view that an increase in mitochondrial activity and the rise in availability of energy are both associated with active healing.
There is considerable anecdotal evidence at this point to support the use of hyperbaric therapy in the treatment of brain injuries. Patients who suffer concussions, and who survive surgery for brain tumors, often accept hyperbaric therapy. Brain imaging done in these cases often shows improved blood flow in the cerebrum, and greater electrical activity in previously dormant areas. While it would be helpful to have more scientific evidence in support of hyperbaric therapy, pressurized oxygen can’t be patented or exploited for much profit. For this reason, there isn’t enough research funding directed to hyperbaric medicine as an area of study. Nevertheless, there is considerable medical interest in it, simply because practical experience appears to demonstrate that when it comes to concussions and other brain injuries, placing the patient in an atmosphere rich in pressurized oxygen helps.