In the past couple years, the novel coronavirus, COVID-19 has swept around the world, infecting millions with a wide range of impact to the patient. While most recover from COVID-19 infections, some experience symptoms that last months after the initial infection. These long COVID patients exhibit a combination of persistent symptoms, including fatigue, memory issues, brain fog, anxiety, sleep disruption, change in taste and smell sensation, muscle pain, shortness of breath, and gastrointestinal symptoms. These symptoms can be quite debilitating and disruptive to people's daily lives.
A new exciting research study has recently been published showing how Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy can improve neurocognitive functions and symptoms of a post-COVID- condition, specifically those struggling with long COVID, commonly known as "long haulers". This post summarizes the impacts of long COVID and the implications of this new study.
As long COVID becomes more prevalent, there is speculation and concern over what this will mean for people's health. For many, the experience of long COVID is compared to that of a marathon: It takes a toll on your body and mind, and there is no one-size-fits-all answer to how you will recover.
Researchers are still attempting to understand further the cause, long-term effects, and effective treatments for patients with long COVID, and experts believe that it is still too early to know all of the potential implications of the virus itself. However, with this newly published research on the potential benefits of hyperbaric oxygen therapy for those post-COVID-19 infection, I want to provide some information that might be helpful for those who are impacted by it. Click here to skip ahead to our synopsis of the study.
What is Long COVID?
In the early days of the pandemic, research suggested that most people who contracted COVID-19 would experience illness and fully recover within a few weeks. However, a small percentage of patients continue to experience symptoms for months after first becoming ill. A 2021 study found that one in seven patients discharged from the hospital with COVID-19 still had symptoms after eight weeks.
These so-called "long haulers" often report debilitating fatigue, brain fog, anxiety, depression, and a host of other symptoms that can make it difficult to return to their normal lives. Some people experience headaches, chest pain, and heart problems. Because the symptoms are so varied, it can be difficult to diagnose long COVID. However, if you have several of these symptoms and they persist for more than a couple of weeks, it’s worth seeing a doctor. Long haulers have also experienced more severe problems such as heart inflammation and strokes.
The Role of Hyperbaric Oxygen in Treating Long COVID
There is still much we don't know about long COVID, but getting treated in a hyperbaric chamber has emerged as a treatment option for the condition. HBOT is a therapy that involves breathing 100% oxygen in a pressurized chamber. During a hyperbaric treatment session, the pressure allows the oxygen to reach higher levels in the bloodstream and tissues, reducing inflammation1 and promoting healing and recovery.
Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy & Inflammation
There are several mechanisms by which HBOT reduces inflammation. By increasing the concentration of dissolved oxygen in the plasma, HBOT stimulates the production of anti-inflammatory cytokines and growth factors. HBOT can also increase the expression of anti-inflammatory genes, which can help to reduce the overall inflammatory response.
The anti-inflammatory effects of HBOT has been shown to be effective in a variety of conditions, including autoimmune disorders and acute injuries. Given the role of inflammation in long COVID, HBOT may be a beneficial treatment option for long haulers.
Engage in a conversation with your doctor, as you navigate the path to recovery from Long COVID. Below you'll find some key factors to consider.
The Immune Systems Role in Long COVID
While the exact cause of long COVID is still unknown, research suggests that it may be caused by a combination of factors including an overactive immune response and damage to the lungs and brain.
There is a lot of discussion these days about the role of the immune system in protecting against and recovering from COVID-19. One theory that has been gaining traction is that people with an overactive immune system are more likely to develop severe symptoms from the virus. This theory is based on the fact that people with certain autoimmune disorders, such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, seem to be at a higher risk for developing severe COVID-19. While the exact mechanisms are still unclear, it is thought that an overactive immune system may cause excessive inflammation which can lead to serious complications.
Treatment Options for Long COVID
There is no known cure for long COVID, but maintaining a healthy lifestyle can help ease symptoms. Common activities include:
- Stop smoking
- Exercise regularly
- Eat a balanced diet
- Get adequate sleep
- Aerobic exercise
Research Supports Hyperbaric Oxygen for Long COVID
Research is ongoing into potential treatments for long COVID, with a number of promising leads currently under investigation. Hyperbaric Oxygen has been shown to be effective in treating a variety of conditions, including strokes and brain injuries, and there is some evidence that it may also be helpful in relieving the symptoms of long COVID. A small study in Israel found that hyperbaric oxygen therapy was associated with improved symptoms and quality of life in a group of long COVID patients, with significant improvements in fatigue, brain fog, and shortness of breath2.
Oxygen under pressure can help to reduce inflammation and promote healing by increasing the amount of oxygen that reaches the tissues. While more research is needed to confirm these findings, hyperbaric oxygen therapy may offer a promising treatment option for “long haulers” suffering post a COVID-19 infection. Larger and more rigorously designed studies are needed to confirm these findings, but the preliminary results are encouraging.
Excitingly, one such study has recently been published. The new results from this prospective, randomized study investigating the effects of hyperbaric oxygen therapy on long COVID cases offers promise for those looking for novel treatment options. This study can be found here:
In the investigation by Zilberman-Itskovich, S., Catalogna, M., Sasson, E. et al. long COVID patients’ cognitive and psychiatric function, energy levels, sleep quality, pain, and lung function were evaluated.
The investigators found that participants who received forty hyperbaric oxygen treatment sessions had displayed beneficial changes in their cognition, fatigue levels, sleep, and pain patterns. The researchers attributed these changes to increased brain blood perfusion and neuroplasticity identified on MRI scans. Neuroplasticity is a process where the brain creates and reorganizes nerve cell synaptic connections after injury.
This research study provides evidence that hyperbaric oxygen therapy could provide relief to some patients struggling with the long-term effects of COVID-19.
Summary: Hyperbaric Oxygen for Long COVID
It has become increasingly clear that not everyone who contracts COVID-19 will experience a mild illness and quick recovery. A small percentage of patients, known as "long haulers," continue to experience symptoms for months after becoming ill.
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) is generally safe, with few risks associated with the procedure. Most people tolerate HBOT well and do not experience any serious side effects. However, it is important to be evaluated by a hyperbaric medicine specialist to see if HBOT is right for you, and any potential risks before starting treatment.
If you or someone you know is a long hauler suffering from post COVID-19, talk to your doctor about the potential benefits of hyperbaric oxygen therapy.
Written by Alan Katz, MD, FUHM, FACEP, FAAEM
Dr. Alan Katz, National Medical Director of Hyperbaric Medical Solutions (HMS), is double board certified in Emergency Medicine and Hyperbaric Medicine. He directs clinical operations, as well as education and research initiatives for HMS, particularly in exploring the use of hyperbaric oxygen therapy....Read More