Oxygen treatment via hyperbaric chamber has long been used to treat divers suffering from decompression sickness, or “the bends,” but research has led to a wide variety of new uses for the treatment, including helping military veterans suffering from brain injury and post traumatic stress.
With every war, a percentage military men and women fall victim to post traumatic stress disorder:
- Operation Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom – 11-20%
- Gulf War – 12%
- Vietnam War – 15-30%
In addition to PTSD, there have been almost 380,000 traumatic brain injuries to veterans since 2000. Both traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) caused by improvised exploding devices (IED) are now being treated experimentally with hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT). Two VA treatment facilities, the Eastern Oklahoma VA Health Care System and the VA Northern California Health Care System, have partnered with HBOT providers in Oklahoma and California, respectively, to provide this care.
When someone is subjected to a traumatic brain injury, even a mild one, it knocks blood flow from parts of the brain. Some tissues in the brain may die as a result of the trauma, but many tissues simply go into a hibernation mode as a result of a lack of oxygen.
A 14 year military veteran, James Skarin, went through the treatment as part of an experimental program and also streamed his experiences on Facebook Live as part of the “End 22” campaign, which seeks to bring awareness to the 22 military veterans who commit suicide everyday.
In addition to his traumatic brain injury, James showed signs of kidney damage, anxiety, and short term memory loss.. He also had trouble speaking and balance problems prior to undergoing hyperbaric oxygen treatment. His therapy consisted of 40 treatments over the course of 8 weeks. Each treatment lasted 90 minutes in a pressurized chamber with 100% oxygen. James described his experience as a “complete rebirth,” and testing backed up his sentiments by showing 58% improvement.
The 2 main obstacles to increasing the use of HBOT to treat veterans or others suffering from from a TBI or PTSD are research and funding.
Hyperbaric oxygen treatment plans currently cost between $2,000 – $6,000. HBOT isn’t covered by many insurance plans, including VA insurance, but that could change if enough trials prove its effectiveness. Currently, the VA is offering HBOT as an ‘off-label’ treatment, while both the VA and Department of Defense are commissioning additional research to understand more fully how the treatment can be used for PTSD.
Known side effects of hyperbaric treatments are minimal. The treatment has caused convulsions, progressive myopia or pulmonary dyspnea, in some cases, but these conditions tend to subside after treatment has ceased.
Middle-ear barotrauma, ranging from sensitivity to full rupture, has been the most severe side effect. However, there are certain tests that present strong indicators on which patients are likely to experience middle-ear barotrauma. Unsurprisingly, given that the treatment is administered in small spaces, claustrophobia has been reported as an issue.
Research indicates that HBOT, when administered in short repetitive sessions, is a safe treatment, with side effects that are minor and easily remedied.