Wondering if hyperbaric oxygen therapy for spinal cord injury is effective?
Our bodies need oxygen to fuel tissue function and fight infections.
But what happens when you’re in a chamber full of pure oxygen at increased pressures?
Let’s find out!
What to Expect with Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy for Spinal Cord Injury
First things first, we want to clarify that there isn’t sufficient evidence that hyperbaric oxygen therapy can treat spinal cord injury.
However, experimental studies suggest that it can be effective in treating many of the secondary injury outcomes of spinal cord injury.
HBOT can take place in a single unit or a room with several people.
Timing also varies, but you can expect each session to last anywhere between 30 minutes to 2 hours.
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy should not be painful, but you may experience ear popping due to changes in air pressure.
Secondary Spinal Cord Injury
After spinal cord injury, a bunch of biochemical processes transpire in an attempt to stabilize the spinal cord.
However, this also creates a very hostile microenvironment that results in:
- reduced blood flow from damaged, blood vessels
- inflammatory response from the damaged blood-brain barrier and the release of free radicals that cause oxidative stress, which destroys blood vessel walls
- cell deaths from the excessive release of neurotransmitters
Benefits of Using Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy for Spinal Cord Injury Recovery
Experimental studies suggest that hyperbaric oxygen therapy can help regulate biochemical processes in the spinal cord to reduce damages brought on by secondary injury.
1. Decreases Oxidative Stress
Oxidative stress which is when there’s an imbalance between the production of free radicals (highly reactive oxygen molecules) and antioxidant enzymes.
When you have more free radicals than antioxidant enzymes, free radicals can cause damage to your tissues and DNA.
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy activates the upregulation of antioxidant enzymes.
Antioxidants neutralize free radicals without making them reactive.
The more antioxidants are produced, the less reactive free radicals become, which prevents cellular damage.
2. Decreases Apoptosis
As you just learned, free radicals cause oxidative stress.
Oxidative stress triggers programmed cell death called apoptosis.
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy reduces oxidative stress, which ultimately decreases cell deaths.
Nitric oxide levels also play a key role in apoptosis, depending on the amounts present.
Small concentrations of nitric oxide assist with neuroprotection, while larger amounts are seen in inflammation.
3. Reduces Inflammation
After spinal cord injury, your damaged blood-brain barrier allows immune cells to invade to the spinal cord and activate an inflammatory response.
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy helps reduce inflammation by decreasing the level of anti-inflammatory cytokines in the spinal cord.
It also reduces gap junctions in cell membranes, which prevents the spread of anti-inflammatory mediators from damaged cells to healthy ones.
4. Promotes Angiogenesis
Angiogenesis is the development of new blood vessels.
This can helps keep heart rate and blood pressure stable.
Our tissues receive oxygen through our blood. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy increases oxygen tension, which results in improved cell activity.
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy also significantly increases levels of vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF).
This restores blood supply in the spinal cord by increasing vascular density, which promotes neuron protection and functional recovery.
5. Reduces Swelling
As we previously mentioned, an inflammatory response is triggered after an SCI to help fight infections and clean up the spinal cord.
However, the inflammatory response also causes swelling, which can block blood flow and prevent our tissues from receiving oxygen.
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy significantly reduces the chemicals that increase the permeability of the blood-spinal cord barrier by degrading type IV collagen.
It also results in less water entry into the spinal cord, which prevents fluid retention.
The Reality of Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy for Spinal Cord Injury
Is hyperbaric oxygen therapy starting to sound a little bit too good to be true?
Well, it’s not all rainbows and butterflies. In fact, quite a few things that can go wrong.
For one thing, there’s a possibility that the oxygen chamber can explode and catch on fire.
Side effects of hyperbaric oxygen therapy for spinal cord injury include:
- temporary nearsightedness from direct oxygen toxicity to the lens
- injury to the middle ear due to increased air pressure
- claustrophobia from being enclosed in the oxygen chamber
- lung collapse from changes in air pressure
- seizures from overdosing on oxygen (oxygen toxicity)
Lots of experimental studies on the effectiveness of hyperbaric oxygen therapy for spinal cord injury demonstrate positive results.
However, clinical studies are showing mixed results, which suggests that there isn’t enough consistency and that further research is necessary.
Hopefully, with a little more fine-tuning, hyperbaric oxygen therapy will prove to be more than just a promising practice.
If you’re interested in trying it for yourself, consult with your doctor. Good luck!