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Army veteran Matt Williams served in Iraq at the end of 2005 just south of Baghdad, which is considered to be among the most intense times of the war and one of the most dangerous locations. During his time on the battlefield Williams, 26, encountered dozens of explosive devices, and lost several of his fellow soldiers, including his best friend.

Williams suffers from a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and takes 11 different types of medications to treat his symptoms. He says the world of PTSD is lonely and that it feels like "you're the only rock that's on the beach. Everything is smooth and you're the only rock that's sitting there." He says he doesn't sleep because he has dreams about his best friend that he lost and that "I don't want to have all that." So he just stays up watching reruns of television shows he's already seen instead.

Williams' story is a heartbreaking tale that is heard all too often these days as soldiers return from war with a TBI and/or PTSD. But all hope may not be lost for veterans like Williams.

A promising treatment – albeit a controversial one – for TBI and PTSD was featured last night on HDNet World Report, an independent network intended to appeal to men.

The program put a spotlight on hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT), a medical treatment intended to enhance the body's natural healing process by inhalation of 100% oxygen in a total body chamber, where atmospheric pressure is increased and controlled.

A study on the use of HBOT to treat TBI was published in 2007 in Brain Research. At the time the study was published, William Duncan, PhD, senior VP of Capital Hill Consulting Group (Washington), told Medical Device Daily he calls Paul Harch, MD, the man behind HBOT, a "miracle worker," ( Medical Device Daily, Oct. 17, 2007).

"You see miracles happen when you treat an oxygen-deprived injury with oxygen," Duncan told MDD in 2007. "It shouldn't be rocket science, but it actually is rocket science."

Harch used the therapy to treat Duncan's mentally disabled brother, his son who was discharged from the Navy with a brain injury, and even Duncan himself, who suffered from TBI as a result of childhood abuse.

According to Sechrist (Anaheim, California), a company that makes hyperbaric technology, HBOT is a treatment in which the patient is entirely enclosed in a pressure chamber breathing 100% pure oxygen at greater than one atmosphere pressure. Air, in comparison, contains nearly 21% oxygen and 78% nitrogen. The company said HBOT can deliver nearly 15 times as much oxygen as there is in air at normal pressure.

Harch said he made this discovery when he first applied HBOT to divers with a disabling form of "the bends," brain decompression illness. He noticed that the traditional application of a single HBOT session to freshly injured divers did not result in the immediate cure described by the Navy. Instead, divers from the Gulf of Mexico presented days to weeks after their injury and required much more HBOT at a lower pressure.

Eventually, Harch realized that they were treating more chronic forms of brain injury because the bubbles had long passed through the divers' brains. Harch and colleagues applied this lower dose of HBOT to patients with other forms of chronic brain injury, including trauma, cerebral palsy, autism, toxic brain injury, dementia and multiple other diagnoses.

The fact that so many soldiers are returning from war with TBI and PTSD is a "national emergency, Harch said during last night's episode of HDNet World Report.

"It's an incredible problem. Everything we are is due to our brain and when you have brain dysfunction you lose who you are," Harch said.

According to Harch, 80% of PTSD and TBI patients he has treated with HBOT have returned to their normal lives. He also notes a nearly 40% decrease in post-concussion syndrome symptoms such as headaches, memory loss and depression. Almost 30% of PTSD patients treated with HBOT have experienced a reduction in symptoms, he reported.

During the HBOT treatment, patients are exposed to pure oxygen, one hour at a time, in an airtight chamber.

"What is theorized is that there are damaged brain cells that aren't yet dead, they are disabled," Harch told the show's correspondent Carol McKinley. "It's like a car that's broken and can only go in first gear, somehow [the oxygen] is restoring energy metabolism capability to cells."

In addition to talking with Williams, McKinley also interviewed Margaux Mange, a former MP who served in Iraq and is now being treated with HBOT, for the segment.

"I was definitely skeptical," Mange said. "I mean I've been through brain surgery. Oxygen? I was's that gonna help? But I'm a believer!"

But not everyone believes in the therapy.

According to McKinley, the U.S. Army has refused to use hyperbaric oxygen treatment on returning veterans, saying that it is an unproven science.

"The Army, the military in general, has been very negative about it," Harch said on the show. "They've told us it's illegal what I'm doing; there's been a fair amount of obstruction, discrediting statements, threats."

The show quoted a statement from the Army's Lt. Gen. Shoomaker regarding the treatment.

"Without scientific, evidence-based data to support current claims, it would be inappropriate to pursue [HBOT] as a viable treatment option for soldiers suffering chronic symptoms from brain injury," Shoomaker said. "Because of its expense and labor intensity, it would also be an inappropriate application of critical resources better used for evidence-based approaches."

But, according to McKinley, Congress has taken notice of Harch's research, and is now forcing the Army to begin clinical trials, treating soldiers suffering from TBI with HBOT. As a result, by the end of this year, five Army hospitals will participate in a double-blind clinical trial using hyperbaric oxygen on about 400 brain-injured soldiers. Trials will go until at least 2012, she reported.

Amanda Pedersen, 229-471-4212;

Published  April 14, 2010

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