Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is one of the most common causes of disability in the United States, affecting over 13 million citizens. Traumatic brain injury is responsible for over 2 million emergency department visits, over a quarter of 1 million hospitalizations, and nearly 60,000 deaths each year.
Traumatic brain injury harms brain tissue in two phases. The first phase of injury occurs at the time of the traumatic incident. This initial injury may cause small or large areas of the brain to bleed. It may also shear (stretch/tear) nerve cells, making them dysfunctional. The second phase occurs hours or days after the initial injury. The brain is subjected to ongoing damage because of inflammation, cell death, and injury to blood vessels. Many people with TBI are left with lifelong problems with thinking, memory, and behavior.
In both of these phases of injury, one major way to help prevent long-term brain damage is by maintaining adequate blood flow to brain tissue. Unfortunately, once the damage has occurred, it can be a challenge to reverse the damage. Patients usually must endure months or years of physical and occupational therapy to regain what was lost. Moreover, patients often need substantial amounts of psychiatric and psychological support to treat mental health problems.
Fortunately, researchers are using hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) to improve blood flow to the brain in patients with traumatic brain injury. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy provides patients with pure oxygen (100%) at slightly higher pressures than they would experience normally. It is been used for hundreds of years to treat scuba divers who suffered “the bends” or decompression sickness; however, researchers are finding that hyperbaric oxygen therapy is a “coveted neurotherapeutic method for brain repair.”
To study the effects of hyperbaric oxygen therapy, researchers selected 10 people who had suffered mild traumatic brain injury in the previous 7 to 13 years. Patients all had brain damage that interfered with attention, memory, and thinking abilities.
Even though patients had sustained traumatic brain injury and brain damage a decade earlier, hyperbaric oxygen therapy was able to improve blood flow in the brain. Likewise, the amount of blood detected within the brain significantly increased, suggesting that hyperbaric oxygen therapy actually caused blood vessels in the brain to grow and multiply. Just as impressively, patients with chronic brain damage performed better on tests of cognition (i.e. thinking). They were able to process information more quickly, they had better motor function, and they were able to take in and process information about the world around them more efficiently.
Because people with traumatic brain damage have limited treatment options to improve their situations, these results are incredibly exciting. This was a study on 10 patients and more studies on larger numbers are still needed to build on these findings. Nonetheless, these results are quite encouraging for people with traumatic brain injury and their loved ones.