For most people, healing from a wound is a short-term problem. But for 6 million Americans, the process can be painful—and never quite complete. “A chronic wound is one that hasn’t healed completely after eight weeks of conventional therapy,” says Michael Strauss, M.D., interim director of the wound care program at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center and director of the hospital’s hyperbaric medicine program. “Typically, the problem is associated with underlying causes such as diabetes, vascular disease, malnutrition or limited mobility—all of which are linked to impaired healing abilities. Poor blood flow results in a lack of oxygen to the wound site.” Without enough oxygen and the vital nutrients that blood delivers, conditions such as leg ulcers and pressure sores can result in serious infection and tissue damage, leading in some cases to limb amputation and death.
People with diabetes are particularly prone to non-healing wounds. Many have neuropathy, a condition that decreases the level of sensation in their feet. All too often, the lack of a painful sensation gives patients the false impression that nothing is wrong. Consequently, they delay seeking care for the problem, resulting in a serious and potentially limb-threatening wound. Poor circulation and decreased immune functioning further contribute to the problem. For these reasons, people with diabetes account for 60 percent of non-traumatic amputations.
Although 55-year-old Videlia Campos wasn’t facing limb amputation last year, she was grappling with diabetes and a complicated wound on the big toe of her right foot caused by a bunion operation. “On a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the worst, the pain was a 10,” says Videlia. “I couldn’t eat, sleep or walk.”
Videlia’s podiatrist referred her to the Long Beach Memorial wound care program, where she underwent a comprehensive evaluation. During the process, she was diagnosed with a blocked coronary artery, which prevented blood from adequately circulating throughout her body to heal the damaged tissue. Following angioplasty, a minimally invasive procedure in which Videlia’s artery was cleared with a balloon-tipped catheter, she started on a 20-session course of hyperbaric oxygen therapy. This treatment is offered at only about 500 wound care centers in the nation.
One of the most advanced techniques that specialists use to heal chronic wounds, hyperbaric oxygen therapy was originally developed as a way to restore oxygen in deep-sea divers who suffered the “bends” by surfacing too rapidly.
But physicians soon discovered that hyperbaric oxygen therapy also facilitated the healing of wounds, preventing up to 80 percent of potential amputations when combined with surgery and medical management. During the therapy sessions, patients recline inside a three-foot wide, seven-foot long chamber while breathing 100 percent pure oxygen under pressure that’s equivalent to being 33 feet under the sea. A physician oversees the entire process. Long Beach Memorial has six hyperbaric chambers—some of which are large enough to permit patients to sit up almost fully during treatments.
“The increased pressure in the hyperbaric oxygen chamber puts 10 times more oxygen in patients’ blood plasma and tissue fluids than they’d have if they were breathing air on the surface,” says Dr. Strauss. The additional oxygen is then carried through the bloodstream to the wound. This promotes healing by assisting with the development of new tissues and blood vessels at the wound site.
After 20 sessions, Videlia’s toe was 75 percent healed. “I was able to walk—and my pain level had dropped to zero!” she says. She’s currently undergoing more treatments to heal her toe completely. “Hyperbaric therapy is such a blessing for people with problems like mine,” she says. “It really works.”