Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy for the Treatment of Chronic Pain From Bowel Dysfunction

Is hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) effective for managing chronic pain from bowel dysfunction? Many patients who struggle with gastrointestinal disorders do not respond well to conventional treatments like corticosteroids and anti-inflammatories, requiring surgery to restore digestive function. As a result, more patients are looking toward alternative healing regimens to avoid these invasive procedures.

Irritable bowel disease (IBD) is a condition that affects hundreds of thousands of people living in the United States. Inflammation of the gastrointestinal system can cause some patients to develop painful symptoms such as persistent abdominal cramping, soreness, diarrhea, and fever. These problems can escalate with age and make it difficult for an individual to perform at work or maintain a healthy social life.

Nearly a quarter of those living with Ulcerative Colitis undergo hospitalization and surgery for their symptoms. However, many patients who seek surgical treatment for IBD experience postoperative complications that require alternative healing regimens.

Some doctors believe hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) is a practical solution for mitigating chronic pain during recovery.

Scholarly circles continue to debate how effective this therapy is for treating IBD. Reviews by Rossignol (2012) and Dulai et al. (2014) attempted to quantify the response rates of patients with conditions like Crohn’s disease. Findings from 36 studies indicated that HBOT improved the symptoms of over three-quarters of participants.

Lancet Oncology published a 2015 study by Glover et al. that monitored the response rates of patients with radiation-induced chronic gastrointestinal dysfunction. Unlike earlier reviews, researchers could not find substantial evidence that HBOT alleviated participants’ symptoms. Some doctors reconsider HBOT as a postoperative solution for post-radiotherapy.

Understanding Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy

Oxygen in the bloodstream allows new cells to grow and survive. Unfortunately, patients who experience soft tissue injuries sometimes do not receive sufficient oxygen to heal. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is a safe treatment that aims to increase the amount of oxygen a patient’s blood vessels can carry.

Doctors administer HBOT as both an elective and emergency solution for various medical conditions, sometimes supported by conventional treatments before or after the procedure. During therapy, a doctor secures their patient inside a pressurized environment (usually a chamber or a room). The patient then breathes 100% oxygen while the pressure in the room slowly increases up to three times the normal level.

Doctors can utilize two types of hyperbaric systems when administering oxygen: monoplace or multiplace. Monoplace chambers are compact tubes in which a single patient lies while the pressure around them slowly increases. Multiplace chambers fit several patients and deliver oxygen through masks or medical hoods.

The high oxygen infusion allows patients’ blood to resist harmful bacteria and release stem cells that facilitate healing. Depending on the patient’s condition, HBOT can last just a few minutes or as long as two hours before the doctor returns room pressure to normal levels.

Currently, the FDA approves the use of hyperbaric oxygen therapy to treat medical conditions such as:

  • Infections
  • Necrotizing wounds
  • Radiation injuries
  • Burns
  • Anemia
  • Decompression sickness
  • Diabetic wounds
  • Reduced blood flow to arteries

Additional Read: How Peripheral Neuropathy Is Treated with Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy

Radiation-Induced Bowel Dysfunction and HBOT | Clinical Trial

Doctors have been treating chronic pain after pelvic radiotherapy with HBOT for decades. However, many doctors who use this treatment cite non-randomized studies to justify the practice.

In 2015, researchers affiliated with the National Institute of Health Research Biomedical Research Centre at The Royal Marsden attempted to fill the gaps left by these studies. They executed a conclusive, double-blind study to determine the effectiveness of HBOT after radiotherapy for pelvic malignancies.

Participants included adults (above 18) with chronic pain and/or rectal bleeding that persisted for at least 12 months after pelvic radiotherapy. Additionally, each subject underwent at least three months of conventional medical treatment for their conditions and displayed no signs of cancer recurrence before participating.

Researchers randomized the study using a computer to divide the subjects into two groups. The first group would receive 100% oxygen in the HBOT chamber. The control group would receive 21% oxygen.

Both groups underwent HBOT for 90 minutes a day, five days a week, for eight consecutive weeks. The staff knew which treatment the participants would receive, though the physicians administering patient care and the subjects themselves did not.

Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy for Chronic Pain and Rectal Bleeding Results

Before receiving the treatment, patients filled out a questionnaire describing their symptoms. Twelve months after HBOT, they submitted a follow-up questionnaire to detail any changes in their conditions.

55 participants received active HBOT, while 29 received sham-controlled treatment. 75 (89%) of subjects who received eight weeks of therapy returned to baseline conditions (such as rectal bleeding) within two weeks of completing the trial.

Researchers found little difference between the post-treatment conditions of those who received 100% oxygen vs. 21% oxygen. The study did not provide enough evidence to suggest that hyperbaric oxygen therapy for chronic pain benefits those with radiation-induced bowel dysfunction.

Researchers also noted that more studies are necessary to develop a comprehensive understanding of HBOT’s effects on these patients.

Should the Narrative About Hyperbaric Oxygen Treatment Change?

The HBOT study for radiation-induced bowel dysfunction offers some insight for doctors who administer this treatment.

First, it suggests that hyperbaric oxygen treatment may not be an appropriate solution to address all types of bowel dysfunction. The 2015 data contradicts non-randomized studies and fails to provide substantial evidence that suggests HBOT is a long-term solution for those managing chronic pain after pelvic radiotherapy. It also fails to reproduce optimistic results similar to the Rossignol (2012) and Dulai et al. (2014) reviews.

So, should the medical community change its narrative about hyperbaric oxygen therapy?

Despite evidence suggesting HBOT is ineffective for treating bowel dysfunction after radiotherapy, HBOT could still fortify the patient’s body against future infections. There is significant research indicating that HBOT helps reduce inflammation, repair cells, and strengthen the immune system. Still, doctors should consider administering HBOT in collaboration with conventional treatment plans for the best results.

Who Else Benefits From Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy?

Those who manage chronic pain from radiation-induced bowel dysfunction may not be the best candidate for HBOT if they seek long-term relief. Further research may also be necessary to conclusively determine if this therapy is practical for other IBD conditions, such as Ulcerative Colitis and Crohn’s Disease.

Those who manage chronic pain from fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, and the prolonged symptoms of COVID may benefit from HBOT. Increased oxygen in the bloodstream promotes cell health, improves cognitive functions and motor controls, and reduces sickness fatigue for some patients.

This therapy can be dangerous for those with collapsed lungs or severe infections. In these scenarios, the pressurized environment could cause further damage to the body.

Doctors should conduct a comprehensive consultation with their patients to discuss the benefits and risks of HBOT on a case-by-case basis.

Potential Side Effects and Concerns Associated With Treatment

Despite the re-emergence of pain and rectal bleeding, none of the participants in the above study mentioned adverse or escalated symptoms related to their treatment. Therefore, HBOT is generally a low-risk procedure for those with IBD or other forms of bowel dysfunction. Still, doctors should keep a close eye on patients’ medical history and prescriptions before recommending HBOT.

Some patients who undergo hyperbaric oxygen therapy report side effects such as the following:

  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Headaches
  • Fluid buildup
  • Sinus pain
  • Changes in vision

Most of these side effects are temporary results of pressure changes in the body. Therefore, patients can expect these problems to disappear shortly after treatment. Still, side effects can make the healing process much less comfortable for those managing chronic pain from bowel dysfunction.

Other Considerations

Every hyperbaric chamber facility must comply with FDA-approved regulations. Systems that are unsafe for medical use – sometimes called “soft chambers” – may not guarantee oxygen purity. As a result, patients with chronic pain could receive ineffective treatment.

Power outages or disruptions can also cause the chamber to deflate, creating a suffocation risk for patients.

Medical staff should routinely monitor and secure their oxygen tanks in safe locations before administering treatment. Oxygen is flammable and highly explosive.

It may be appropriate for a physician to discuss other options if a patient with chronic pain from bowel dysfunction is not responding to HBOT after several weeks of treatment. Long-term exposure to high-pressurized environments can cause adverse symptoms or prevent patients from seeking alternative solutions to manage their conditions.

Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy at NexGen Hyperbaric, LLC

It is essential to seek reliable medical care when you manage chronic pain or an injury. At NexGen Hyperbaric, LLC, we treat patients with clinically tested, FDA-approved solutions.

For over 19 years, we have treated patients for various symptoms using hyperbaric oxygen therapy. We are passionate about providing ethical treatment and quality communication for patients of all backgrounds. Our facility is safe, clean, and regulated to ensure that you get the highest quality comfort during your visit.

If you manage chronic pain from radiation-induced bowel dysfunction or another IBD condition, ask your doctor which options are available.

Contact NexGen Hyperbaric, LLC, in Edwards, CO, today. Schedule a hyperbaric oxygen therapy consultation at 888-567-4302.