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Hyperbaric Oxygen May Help Troops with Traumatic Brain Injuries

Military officials have received some criticism over the past few weeks regarding its efforts to help soldiers who have suffered traumatic brain injuries. A report commissioned by the Department of Defense identified a variety of problems and inadequate coordination among current programs aimed at helping these soldiers. Traumatic brain injuries are some of the most common injuries faced by service members caught in roadside explosive blasts and other incidents leading to serious body trauma.

Last week a story in the Marine Corp Times shared the belief of some military members that use of hyperbaric oxygen helps relieve some of the symptoms of the injury. For example, one retired army sergeant reported that her migraines, memory loss, and facial paralysis were somewhat relived by breathing pure oxygen in a pressurized chamber. The woman suffered her head injury after the vehicle in which she was riding in Iraq ran over roadside bombs on two separate occasions. It wasn’t long after that she began having nerve problems and then severe headaches. However, she has seen improvements since receiving treatment in a hyperbaric chamber most often used to help scuba divers heal from the bends.

Many others share the sergeant’s support for the system of hyperbaric oxygen therapy-known as HBOT. These enthusiasts’ opinions are part of a growing body of anecdotal evidence suggesting that HBOT may help brain injury victims and those with post traumatic stress disorder. However, there has yet to be any scientific confirmation of the benefit. Military officials at the Pentagon explain that they will likely require peer-reviewed scientific analysis before fully endorsing the HBOT for soldiers who have experienced traumatic brain injuries.

HBOT is essentially the delivery of oxygen under pressure to the patient. Right now it is approved for a variety of conditions from soft tissue injuries and acute burns to carbon monoxide poisoning and the bends. It is also known to improve the effectiveness of some antibiotics by stimulating white blood cells and fighting infections. However, head injuries are not one of the fourteen currently approved uses.

Naturally, before endorsing the treatment for head trauma, officials will need scientific data void of colloquial support from those using the system currently. As the Navy surgeon explained, the military needed “to base therapies on objective clinical data that cannot be influenced by opinions of people who have benefitted.” Two studies on the very issues have actually been underway for two years, but results have yet to be released. The first effort was initiated in 2008 with results expected in 2010. Yet, those results have yet to be shared. The second effort was larger (with a $20 million budget), and it was supposed to began in January of 2010. However, it has apparently been moving quite slowly and only began a few months ago.

The slowness of the effort to verify HBOT benefits has advocates frustrated. We have frequently explained on these pages the large number of service members who are suffering from the effects of brain injuries with little valuable treatment options. One former army staff members vented, “we’ve got an epidemic here…and we’re not giving them the treatment they deserve.”

See Our Related Blog Posts:

Study Questions Efficacy of Military Brain Injury Treatments

Brain Injury Therapy Available for Iraqi War Veterans

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