Oxygen for TBI May Not Do the Trick

Hyperbaric oxygen for traumatic brain injury may not be an effective treatment

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) More soldiers have been returning from deployment with traumatic brain injury. Doctors have been looking for effective treatments for this injury. But one common treatment may not work.

That treatment involves putting patients in a pressurized hyperbaric chamber like the ones used for scuba diving and burn injuries. The higher pressure means the patient breathes denser oxygen.

But a recent study found that hyperbaric oxygen may not really help mild traumatic brain injury. More research needs to be done to see if it can help at all.

"Protect your head."

The study, led by George Wolf, of the US Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, aimed to find out whether hyperbaric oxygen worked as a treatment for traumatic brain injury.

Fifty military service members participated in the study. All had symptoms from a concussion resulting from at least one combat-related, mild traumatic brain injury.

All members were given 30 sessions (90 minutes each) of hyperbaric oxygen treatments over eight weeks.

However, half of the members were actually receiving a "sham" treatment in which the air compression was set to 1.3 atmospheres absolute pressure (ATA), a measurement that is the same as regular room air.

The other half received treatment in a hyperbaric chamber with the air pressure set to 2.4 ATA, which is much more pressurized.

Before the treatments and six weeks after the treatments, the service members' cognitive functions and post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms (PTSD) were assessed.

The scores on the patients' cognitive function and PTSD symptoms were similar across both groups. There did not appear to be differences between those who received the real hyperbaric oxygen treatment and those who got the fake version.

However, the researchers did find that service members in both groups improved more over the 14 total weeks than expected, regardless of their hyperbaric treatment.

Therefore, the hyperbaric pressure treatment at 2.4 ATA did not improve the patients' TBI symptoms.

Hyperbaric oxygen has been successfully used as a treatment for injuries related to scuba diving, for healing soft tissues and for treatment of carbon monoxide poisoning.

However, the treatment takes a long time, is expensive and is not available at all hospitals. There are also possible side effects from hyperbaric treatment, including pain in the ears or sinuses, vision problems, fatigue and, rarely, oxygen toxicity.

Since the treatment did not appear to make a difference here, the researchers suggested that hyperbaric treatments at 2.4 ATA not be used to treat traumatic brain injury.

However, they did recommend further research to see if hyperbaric treatments at different pressurizing amounts might make a difference.

The study was published November 20 in the Journal of Neurotrauma. The research was funded by the Air Force Medical Support Agency Medical Modernization Directorate, the 711th Human Performance Wing, the US Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery and the US Army Medical Materiel Development Activity. No authors declared any conflicts of interest.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
November 19, 2012
Last Updated:
April 25, 2013