Diabetes Month U.S.A.: Hyperbaric oxygen therapy aids diabetics with chronic wounds

My husband has diabetes and has had a wound on his foot for six weeks. Despite getting treatment, the wound has not healed. Doctors are warning that his foot may have to be amputated. This seems rather drastic. Is there anything else we can do?

Up to 15 percent of the estimated 17 million Americans with diabetes suffer from chronic wounds, most commonly nonhealing foot sores that can lead to a serious infection, gangrene or amputation. Studies suggest that roughly one diabetes patient in 10 loses part of a leg because of an infected nonhealing wound.

One of the reasons people with diabetes are at greatest risk for developing chronic wounds, or wounds that don’t heal within four weeks, is because they have poor circulation. This reduces blood flow to the feet, hampering a wound’s ability to fight infection and heal. Many diabetics also suffer nerve damage, a complication of the disease that reduces sensation and impedes the ability to feel pain. For a person with diabetes, a simple foot blister can turn into to a chronic open sore that is difficult to treat.

The good news is diabetics with chronic wounds can often benefit from hyperbaric oxygen therapy. The therapy, which has been used for decades to save scuba divers from decompression sickness, is recognized by medical professionals as one of the best methods of advanced wound healing and is particularly effective in healing certain wounds associated with diabetes, bone infection and poor circulation.

In fact, research indicates that hyperbaric oxygen therapy reduces the number of amputations in people with diabetes who have chronic foot ulcers.

Patients treated with hyperbaric oxygen therapy receive pure oxygen inside a pressurized chamber (unlike an MRI, the chamber is roomy and clear like a window). A large amount of oxygen is dissolved in the blood at levels up to 20 times higher than under ordinary conditions and delivered to the body’s tissues, rejuvenating blood cells, decreasing swelling and inflammation, improving circulation and increasing the body’s ability to fight infection.

What’s more, a recent study found that the therapy boosts the number of stem cells circulating in a patient’s body; stem cells can differentiate into cells that assist in the healing process and are crucial to injury repair.

But it’s not a panacea, and it’s not for everyone. Those eligible for the treatment must be able to clear their ears and cannot have severe lung disease or be taking certain medications.

At Morristown Memorial Hospital’s hyperbaric unit, patients undergo a careful evaluation to determine if hyperbaric treatment is safe and appropriate for them. An optimal course of hyperbaric oxygen treatment involves two hours of treatment in the chamber for 25 to 40 treatments. The treatment has also been proven to heal tissues injured from cancer radiation therapy.

Marilyn Althoff, M.D., is the medical director of the Hyperbaric Medicine program at Morristown Memorial Hospital. The hospital’s hyperbaric unit was the first in the state to be accredited by the Undersea and Hyperbaric Medicine Society and treats more than 100 patients each year, providing about 1,900 treatments annually.

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