Is hyperbaric oxygen therapy right for you?

Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy Treats Long-term Radiation Therapy Damage

More than 11 million people living in the United States today have been diagnosed with cancer, and of those, nearly half have received radiation therapy (radiotherapy). While improved radiotherapy techniques have increased treatment precision and reduced the side effects caused by radiotherapy, the high doses of radiation used to kill cancer cells may still cause long-term damage to nearby healthy cells in some patients.

By helping the blood carry more oxygen to affected areas, hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBO) has been proven effective in helping many of these patients.

Long-term side effects of radiotherapy

Most side effects of radiotherapy are short term and appear within six months of their last exposure to radiation. However, some patients may experience scarring and narrowing of the blood vessels within the treatment area. This reduces the blood supply and can result in long-term side effects, including death or damage to soft tissues or bones (necrosis, radionecrosis or osteoradionecrosis), poor wound healing and related problems, such as life-threatening infections.

As many as 5 to 10 percent of patients receiving high doses of radiotherapy will experience these late side effects from radiotherapy, which may be delayed for several months or even years after treatment has ended.

What is hyperbaric oxygen therapy?

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBO) is an effective treatment for many patients with late side effects of radiotherapy.

HBO increases the amount of oxygen in the blood by exposing patients to pure oxygen within a sealed chamber set at pressures greater than the normal atmospheric pressure.

Experts believe HBO helps patients by stimulating growth of new blood vessels following radiation-induced damage. This gives the body the opportunity to heal and significantly improve, if not totally relieve, patients of their presenting symptoms.

Hyperbaric oxygen also increases the ability of infection-fighting white blood cells to kill harmful bacteria and accelerate healing.

If surgery is necessary in the area of previous radiation, post-operative healing may be impaired. HBO can improve surgical outcomes, including improving the success of skin grafting or skin flaps, if needed.

HBO has been successful in treating or preventing damage to the jaw bone resulting from radiation treatment and is also effectively used to treat radiation-induced damage to the head, neck, chest wall, abdomen and pelvis.

HBO may prevent tooth loss or collapse of the jaw bone in patients previously treated for head or neck cancers, promote successful skin grafts or flaps following reconstructive surgery in patients treated for breast cancer and eliminate persistent urinary bleeding (radiation cystitis) in patients treated for prostate cancer.

HBO has also been very successful in treating the pain, incontinence, spasms, diarrhea and bleeding of radiation colitis or enteritis, which can occur when there is radiation to the area of the lower abdomen.

HBO usually spans multiple sessions, lasting approximately two hours each, depending on the treatment protocol. During HBO therapy, patients may experience ear popping, mild sinus discomfort or confinement anxiety. Other side effects may include temporary short sightedness (myopia). Very rarely, oxygen toxicity induces seizures. Most patients do not experience any symptoms immediately after HBO and can return to work the day of treatment.

Research supports hyperbaric oxygen therapy for approved uses

For those patients who suffer from late effects of radiation exposure, HBO therapy is often the only treatment that can prevent irreversible bone or tissue loss or enable them to undergo life-improving reconstructive procedures such as breast or facial surgeries. This therapy can provide better quality of life to patients who have already survived cancer.

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is safe, non-invasive, effective and well-tolerated by appropriate patients. Hyperbaric treatment for radiation damage qualifies for Medicare and other third-party payer reimbursement.