May 29, 2014
STATE: Helping those who served
OSU-CHS research examines how hyperbaric oxygen therapy helps heal combat veterans with traumatic brain injuries.
Dr. Paul Rock has seen the difference hyperbaric oxygen therapy can make for combat veterans with mild to moderate brain injuries.
“The damage from brain injuries can be far more devastating than physical pain, affecting a person’s ability to think and concentrate, the amount of sleep they get and even the way they interact with family and friends,” Rock says. “We have seen clinical evidence through our research that hyperbaric oxygen therapy can improve cognitive functions and assist with healing in individuals with these types of injuries.”
A former flight surgeon and internist in the Army, Rock has spent more than 30 years researching the benefits of oxygen pressure changes on the human body. He recently led a research study on how hyperbaric oxygen therapy might help veterans with persistent symptoms from mild to moderate traumatic brain injuries (mTBI) at the OSU Center for Aerospace and Hyperbaric Medicine, part of the OSU Center for Health Sciences in Tulsa.
“Our goal is to provide solid scientific research on the use of this type of therapy so that we know if it’s an effective way of treating traumatic brain injuries,” OSU-CHS President Kayse Shrum says. “There are limited proven treatments for veterans coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq with post-traumatic stress disorder and TBI, and we feel it is part of our duty to Oklahoma to find options for those who have served our country.”
The research at OSU-CHS has attracted national attention as more veterans return from Iraq and Afghanistan with brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder sustained in combat and from improvised explosive devices.
Oklahoma’s Secretary of Veteran Affairs Rita Aragon, a retired U.S. Air Force major general, sees the value of the OSU study. She has pushed in Oklahoma City and Washington, D.C., for additional funding to find treatment options for veterans who currently have none.
“There are more than 17,000 diagnosed cases of veterans with TBI in the state of Oklahoma alone,” Aragon says. “That’s a huge number. We want very much to begin, as aggressively as possible, to find treatment options for our veterans.”
Her message hit close to home for the members of the American Legion Post 259 in Braman, Okla. After learning about the OSU study from Aragon, members of the post decided to donate funds collected during their annual memorial poppy sales to the OSU Center for Aerospace and Hyperbaric Medicine.
“We are dedicated to supporting the community and specifically our veterans and their families,” says Marv Sandbek, past commander of Post 259. “We wanted to keep our donation from the poppy sales in the state. The research going on at OSU-CHS caught our attention, and we are honored to contribute to the effort that will benefit our fellow veterans.”
The poppies are small crepe paper flowers typically sold on Memorial Day and Veterans Day. Post members raised more than $1,200, which they donated in December to support the mTBI study. They also asked other veterans organizations across the state to support the OSU study and efforts to find a treatment.
The experimental hyperbaric oxygen therapy for mTBI requires patients to breath pure oxygen in a pressurized chamber. The increased pressure causes more oxygen to be dissolved into a person’s blood than would normally occur.
The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services and many health-insurance plans have approved hyperbaric oxygen therapy to treat 13 diseases and conditions such as gangrene, decompression sickness and thermal-burn injuries. While the Food and Drug Administration hasn’t approved the therapy for the treatment of traumatic brain injuries, researchers are hopeful that continued studies will provide results needed to support its use for mTBI.
“It is very impressive to see the changes in the participants,” says Dr. Johnny Stephens, assistant dean of research at OSU-CHS. “For some, it’s like a fog has been lifted from their head.”
OSU-CHS has just finished participation in a national study on the use of hyperbaric oxygen therapy for the treatment of traumatic brain injuries. More than 50 participants were included in the study at OSU.
A physician evaluated participants before starting and throughout the study to ensure their safety. During the treatments, technicians both inside and outside the hyperbaric chamber continually monitored participants.
Early results from the study suggest that hyperbaric oxygen therapy may have a positive effect on persistent symptoms of mTBI, PTSD, post-concussive syndrome, sleeplessness, cognitive malaise, depression and emotional control.
Rock and the Center for Aerospace and Hyperbaric Medicine at OSU-CHS are in the process of finalizing the procedures for another study that will provide more convincing evidence of the effects of hyperbaric oxygen therapy for the treatment of mTBI. The center already has a waiting list of volunteers willing to participate in the study. The new study will launch later this year.
This story originally ran in the Spring 2014 issue of STATE Magazine.