Traumatic brain injury is a widespread affliction in the United States with long-term side effects that are difficult to treat. Recent studies into hyperbaric oxygen treatment, which involves breathing pure oxygen in a pressurized chamber, have shown promising results. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is already approved for a host of medical conditions, and researchers are investigating potential further applications for treating patients with traumatic brain injury.
What is Traumatic Brain Injury?
Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is a temporary or permanent loss of normal brain function caused by either a penetrating or non-penetrating accident. In the United States it ranks as the leading cause of both death and disability. Although the majority of TBI cases are classified as mild — such as temporary loss of consciousness or memory —, many of these can lead to debilitating chronic impairments in the long term.
Because the injury pattern to the brain is diffuse, it is difficult to detect TBI with conventional anatomical imaging methods. There is a need for innovative approaches in diagnosis and treatment to address mild traumatic brain injuries and their potential long-term consequences.
What Are the Uses of Hyperbaric Oxygen Treatment?
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) is a medical intervention used to address chronic wounds and a spectrum of other medical conditions. Patients are exposed to a pressurized chamber delivering air enriched with 100% oxygen. The elevated oxygen triggers the healing process in various tissues throughout the body.
Though hyperbaric oxygen therapy was first invented in the early 20th century, it became well-known when the U.S. Navy used it to treat deep-sea divers afflicted with decompression sickness. The therapy's uses grew further in the 1960s when researchers discovered its effectiveness for carbon monoxide poisoning.
Over time, hyperbaric oxygen therapy has evolved, and it is now used for a diverse array of conditions beyond its initial design. It is currently approved for the treatment of crush injuries, certain types of infections, and reduced blood flow in the arteries, among other conditions.
A Promising Link to TBI Recovery
Several studies have shown improvement in the cognitive processes and quality of life in patients with mild traumatic brain injury who were given hyperbaric oxygen treatment.
One randomized trial conducted by the Assaf-Harofeh Medical Center observed 63 military and civilian participants suffering from mild TBI and persistent postconcussion syndrome. The patients received 40 treatment sessions over eight weeks.
The patients who received hyperbaric oxygen treatment demonstrated significant improvements in symptoms, memory, and quality of life. These positive effects endured for at least two months following the completion of the trial.
A separate study conducted by the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center produced similar results among TBI patients whose injuries were up to five years old. Not only did these participants experience increased cognitive function and quality of life, but their brain scans also showed elevated brain activity after the treatment.
The researchers noted that “hyperbaric oxygen therapy can improve post-concussion syndrome years after mild traumatic brain injury,” a promising advancement for those who have already suffered from these symptoms for a long time.
The Hidden Costs of Traumatic Brain Injuries
Long after the initial accident, traumatic brain injury can bring about a wide range of challenges for victims. Physically, it can result in movement difficulties and persistent headaches. Cognitive functions, including memory and problem-solving, may be negatively affected as well.
TBI survivors can also experience emotional and social effects, such as mood swings, anxiety, and communication difficulties. The associated challenges in maintaining relationships and keeping employment can significantly impact their overall quality of life.
The economic burden of traumatic brain injuries is also substantial. Collective medical costs for TMI patients in the U.S. have been estimated at $40 billion during the first year after their TBI diagnoses. One study projected the comprehensive lifetime costs at $758 billion. This estimate factored in medical expenses, loss of wages, and the diminished quality of life for those affected.
When considering a medical condition that is so widespread and has such high social and financial costs, it becomes clear that advancement in medical technology through research and innovation is essential. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy has evolved from its original design in the 20th century, demonstrating its adaptability in addressing various medical conditions.
Although it is not yet approved for use in treating traumatic brain injuries, the potential shown in these trials is enough to give a glimmer of hope to those suffering from long-term effects. Only through systematic research can we discover what other applications therapies like this may have.