Oklahoma legislators have approved a bill that would give free access to hyperbaric oxygen treatment to any Oklahoma veteran who has been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury, but experts on brain injuries are still attempting to uncover whether the therapy can actually produce the miraculous results many of its proponents claim.
One of the biggest supporters for Senate Bill 1604, Capt. Matt Smothermon has personally undergone hyperbaric oxygen treatments before. When he returned home from a deployment to Afghanistan, Smothermon suffered from debilitating headaches, and couldn’t think properly. The normally social man now found social situations hard to handle and he had a hard time focusing.
Just a few years later, Smothermon credits his recovery on the experimental treatment method that lawmakers are now offering at no cost to veterans, where patients are placed in a chamber in which air pressure is raised to several times higher than normal, which is intended to allow the lungs to gather more oxygen.
After 10 rounds of treatment, Smothermon was able to begin to process of re-enrolling in law school, and as a second-year law student the veteran says the treatments gave him his life back.
The story is heartwarming, but there is just one problem. Scientific studies on the effectiveness of hyperbaric oxygen treatments disagree on whether the therapy is useful in the treatment of traumatic brain injuries.
NewsOk.com mentions one such study in a recent article. David Cifu, professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, conducted a series of studies for the U.S. Department of Defense on the effectiveness of hyperbaric oxygen therapy on traumatic brain injury patients. The studies split the patients into three groups. One group received the hyperbaric oxygen therapy, while the second group was placed into a pressurized chamber with no extra oxygen, and the third group received only normal air.
Cifu notes that the group given hyperbaric oxygen therapy did show improvement, but the improvement was no more than what the other groups showed. In fact, Cifu believes the impetus for recovery came from taking service members off of their normal duty and placing them in a supportive nurturing environment.
“Everybody did exactly the same,” Cifu said. “A little R and R helped these people significantly.”
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is also not approved by the FDA, who warns the treatment also puts patients at the risk of serious injuries.
However, several studies have also indicated that hyperbaric oxygen therapy may have potential rewards. William Duncan, a proponent of the therapy who runs an Oklahoma City-based clinic which offers the treatment, claims the negative research is flawed. Duncan points to an Israeli study published that showed promise in the hyperbaric oxygen therapy.
While it may be premature to offer an non-validated therapy option to veterans, most agree that hyperbaric oxygen therapy won’t cause severe injuries like the FDA warns. It would be best to have scientific proof that the therapy helps treat those seeking it out, but in the meantime hopefully it will provide support and relief to military members seeking it.