LOUISVILLE, Colo.(CBS4) – Some Colorado veterans with mild traumatic brain injuries are turning to an alternative treatment that’s not sanctioned by the Food And Drug Administration.
The process involves hyperbaric oxygen therapy and it is legal to use, but studies differ on whether the process works.
Former Army Capt. Donald Martinez is a veteran who told CBS4 he’s seeing good results. He was hurt in 2004 when he got caught in a bomb blast in Iraq. He called it a “hit-and-run attack.”
“(I was) dazed. From there all I remember is going on instinct — grabbing my weapon and going out ready to shoot somebody and there was nobody there,” said Martinez.
After the incident Martinez went back to work.
“If you got a concussion you walk it off. If you get a headache take some ibuprophen — some ‘Ranger candy’ we used to call it,” said Martinez.
Martinez endured two deployments and suffered other injuries.
“PTSD, traumatic brain injury, sleep apnea, migraines … from then I was just a chemistry experiment: increase the doses, change the medicine, increase the doses, change the meds,” said Martinez. “It was like a roller coaster. Some days I was fine, some days I was torn apart.”
Martinez recently started spending time in a hyperbaric chamber at the Rocky Mountain Hyperbaric Institute in Louisville. The chamber is identical to a decompression chamber used to treat divers. He inhales 100 percent oxygen during hour-long sessions in the chamber.
“The increase in oxygen availability helps heal the brain,” said RMHI medical director Dr. Julie Stapleton. “The theory is that we’re bringing oxygen that bathes the area and allows for new blood vessels to grow into the wounded tissue, in this case the wounded brain,” said Stapleton.
Stapleton is a physiatrist, or a rehabilitative physician. She says it’s a safe process, and that she’s seen results in up to 80 percent of patients.
“It helps with speed of processing, attention, memory, mood, sleep, headaches,” said Stapleton.
Stapleton said research supports her findings, but studies done by the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs found no differences between Marines with mild brain injuries who were treated with the oxygen and those who were not.
“Studies do say (this doesn’t work), but here I am,” said Martinez.
Martinez said that after 40 treatments he was migraine-free for four months, and after 40 more treatments he is now on a maintenance-only program. He says the treatment gives him hope.
“I’m on the path to getting better,” he said.
The FDA has approved hyperbaric oxygen therapy for 13 different uses, but not for traumatic brain injuries. Insurance doesn’t cover it, so the RMHI offers the therapy to vets for free thanks to contributions from private donors.
Officials at Fort Carson are planning a clinical trial to test the use of the therapy. They are recruiting active-duty soldiers who have suffered traumatic brain injuries, but so far they aren’t sure when they will have results.
“I just want to be happy. I’ve done my time, I’ve served,” said Martinez.
– Prepared for CBSDenver.com by Tom Mullen and Jesse Sarles