Many US warfighters are left with traumatic brain injury (TBI) and/or posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after suffering blast injury during battle. TBI is one of the leading causes of disability in the United States, and PTSD is rapidly becoming a leading cause of disability among US veterans. PTSD leaves sufferers with flashbacks, severe anxiety, sleep disturbances, mood disorders, and cognitive deficits. Traumatic brain injury, on the other hand, may cause a variety of mental and emotional problems. When these conditions occur in the same patient, it can have devastating effects on quality of life for the veteran’s remaining years.
The main treatment for traumatic brain injury is to simply allow the brain time to heal. Unfortunately, the brain is different than skin or other tissues of the body; it only has limited capacity to heal itself after an injury. The main treatment for PTSD is psychotherapy (talk therapy) and a rather nonspecific collection of medications including antidepressants and antipsychotic drugs. Unfortunately, people with both traumatic brain injury and PTSD are more difficult to treat, and generally, have poorer outcomes.
Researchers at the Veterans Administration studied the effects of hyperbaric oxygen therapy among military veterans with mild to moderate traumatic brain injury and PTSD. In a phase 1 clinical trial, veterans received 40 treatments of hyperbaric oxygen therapy lasting for 60 minutes each. Each treatment was 1.5 times atmospheric pressure or 50% more than they would experience under normal circumstances. Despite this modest dose of hyperbaric oxygen, the benefits to warfighters were remarkable.
After treatment, the veterans had substantial improvements in short-term memory, attention, concentration, and executive function. Shockingly, their IQ increased by nearly 15 points on average. They also enjoyed a substantial reduction in the frequency and severity of headaches. On average, they had a 30% reduction in PTSD symptoms. In fact, nearly 2/3 of trial participants were able to reduce the dose of or stop their PTSD medications.
Study participants also underwent special studies to examine the effects of hyperbaric oxygen therapy on brain tissue and blood flow. Patients treated with hyperbaric oxygen showed substantial increases in brain blood flow and marked increases in the volume of brain tissue. In other words, hyperbaric oxygen therapy was able to accelerate brain healing in this study.
This groundbreaking research has led to the use of hyperbaric oxygen therapy is a treatment for TBI and PTSD in other military personnel and also civilians. As additional clinical trials are published, the hope is that more health insurers, Medicare, and the VA will reimburse patients for this important treatment.