For Frisco resident Ryan Neufeld, a former professional football player, hyperbaric therapy was something he had always heard about but never tried. After doing some research on the medical treatment, however, Neufeld was quick to give the rehabilitation option a shot.
Hyperbaric therapy is a unique kind of treatment in which patients are treated with 100 percent oxygen in a pressurized chamber. The treatment received media attention when professional athletes such as Terrell Owens
began treating sports injuries with less-intensive versions of the chambers doctors use.
Dr. Al Johnson of the Hyperbaric Centers of Texas, the Richardson-based facility where Neufeld received his treatment, said the therapy actually has a wide range of uses beyond sports injury treatments.
“I see a lot of people with different injuries or circumstances, such as patients [who suffered] strokes, head injuries and post-meningitis patients with infections,” Johnson said. “I see people with wounds that aren’t healing, such as spider bites or wounds diabetics may have but don’t meet a hospital’s criteria for hyperbaric treatment.”
While hospitals use hyperbaric therapy for a number of injuries covered by medical insurance, the Hyperbaric Centers of Texas provides what’s known as off-label uses. This essentially means the facility provides treatment not approved by government agencies, typically because enough research regarding the treatment is not available or substantiated.
Many recent studies have touted the benefits of hyperbaric therapy in these uses, however. A 2011 study by Dr. Paul Hatch of LSU’s Health Sciences Center, for instance, found that 16 military patients with traumatic brain injury who underwent hyperbaric therapy saw “significant improvement” in areas such as a neurological exam and overall quality of life.
Johnson said the treatment works by providing more oxygen to impacted areas, which helps decrease swelling and improve circulation, resulting in faster healing.
“Oxygen is the healing element in cell repair; cells need to have oxygen to survive — that’s their food,” he said. “So if a cell loses oxygen or has decreased circulation, then it doesn’t function to its optimal potential. Making sure you get plenty of oxygen to the area improves the healing.”
For Neufeld, hyperbaric therapy was a way to get treatment for a number of concussions he received while playing seven seasons in the NFL and two in the UFL.
In addition to his own therapy, however, Neufeld also took his son, Will, for a test treatment at the Hyperbaric Centers of Texas.
“My son is autistic, and there’s been research regarding the impact of hyperbaric therapy on autism,” Neufeld said. “A lot of his neurological cognitive disabilities I heard could be improved [from hyperbaric therapy]. From my research and talking to other people I heard it could be beneficial for him. That’s where my main focus was — to get him in there.”
Neufeld said the experience of receiving hyperbaric therapy treatment wasn’t what he was expecting. In fact, it wasn’t like any sort of medical treatment at all — it was enjoyable.
“You’re in what’s essentially a huge tube, and you just lay there while they put on a movie for you,” he explained. “It’s pretty relaxing actually. When you first go in, the tube has to pressurize, kind of like you’re in an airplane, so your ears pop. Before you come out it feels like you’re going up in an airplane, too. Other than getting used to that it’s pretty relaxing laying there watching a movie. Will enjoyed it, too.”
Johnson said that even though the form of hyperbaric therapy he provides is for off-label uses, the results he’s seen have been nothing short of what he expects.
“I’ve seen neurological-type improvement in these individuals [with cerebral palsy],” he said. “It depends upon the individual, though. You’re never going to get someone [in these situations] back to normal, but you’ll improve their quality of life. I’ve had autistic individuals receive help [in regards] to speech, self-control and other neurological functions.”
One thing Johnson did stress, however, was that hyperbaric therapy isn’t a quick-fix. It’s a process that takes a commitment to treatment, he said, which typically requires six days of a patient’s time.
“It’s typically 40 hours of treatment initially, and sometimes you have to do another 40 because it’s a rehab,” Johnson said. “It’s rehabbing the cells that have been damaged. It’s like exercise — to build up your muscles, you have to do it on a daily basis. Typically hyperbaric is done on a daily basis, and we do it six days a week with a certain number of hours in mind.”