The diagnosis of IBD is a long hard road of treatment, with no true cure. Both of the main forms of IBD, ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease1, are life-changing diagnoses. If you have IBD, you know how discouraging the cycle of flare-ups is.
You have to navigate figuring out what foods your body can handle and which ones it can’t. You have to completely restructure your lifestyle to make room for your system’s needs. And keeping up with medications and appointments can feel like a full-time job.
Both patients and doctors in the IBD community are eagerly looking for therapies that can better manage the symptoms.
One such physician treating his IBD patients noticed something unusual. Several of his patients improved remarkably when they were located in the Dead Sea area.2 Essentially, when these patients moved to an area of higher pressure, they started getting better. Most had significantly improved perianal fissures, and all of them were able to get off their corticosteroids during their stay. This had the researchers hypothesizing that they might be able to see similar results if they could replicate the environment for their patients. They figured they might be able to give a more efficient treatment with a higher pressure environment for a shorter amount of time. Like with that of a hyperbaric oxygen tank.
That study—and the benefits of HBO for other diseases—are why many physicians are looking to hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) as a therapy option for IBD.
This treatment originally was used to decompress divers who had the bends. Today, it’s used to treat a range of illnesses. Many of the problems that HBOT is used for overlap with IBD.
What symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease does hyperbaric oxygen therapy treat?
- Inflammation. HBOT is often used for diabetic wounds, crush injuries, wounds from swollen legs, and amputation wounds.3 One of the therapy’s biggest benefits in helping wounds heal is how it reduces inflammation.
- Anemia. Rectal bleeding and internal ulcers, while not in every IBD case, are common in people with severe cases. This can lead to anemia. The loss of blood makes it harder for your body to deliver oxygen to the cells that need it. But HBOT has been used successfully to help with anemia.4
Wounds. Serious IBD, especially in the case of Crohn’s, can come with mouth sores, digestive tract ulcers, and fistulas. These wounds are often very painful and increase your risk of infection. When physicians include HBOT in their patient’s plan-of-care, wound improvement is a key rationale.5 That’s why you’ll see many hyperbaric clinics working as a wound care/ostomy treatment center as well.
How Can Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy Potentially Help IBD?
1. By handling IBD inflammation
IBD is marked by chronic inflammation. HBOT has been shown to reduce inflammation. HBOT decreases cytokines that are involved in the cycle of inflammation.
In one eye-opening review of HBOT for IBD, all participants had a serious form of the disorder and were undergoing heavy treatments that weren’t helping. With HBOT, 78% had an improvement in their symptoms when the hyperbaric oxygen chamber pressure was over 2 ATA.6 That’s twice the atmospheric pressure of what’s at the Dead Sea. It would feel like being in a submarine 33 feet underwater.
2. By tackling the internal IBD wounds
Individuals with IBD are frequently plagued by ulcers. HBOT is used to heal wounds. Perianal fissures and ulcers within the gut are wounds that can’t be treated with regular wound care. HBOT drives oxygen deep into the tissues, stimulating wound healing. HBOT is often used for wounds that go down to the bone and that are resistant to antibiotics.
One study showed mucosal healing and stem cell stimulation with ulcerative colitis patients using HBOT. These patients had not been responding well to treatments before the therapy.7 Another study showed patients with non-healing stomach ulcers improving with HBOT.8 HBOT is also an excellent therapy for anemia, which often plagues people with IBD-related blood loss.
3. By providing a low-risk, high-benefit therapy for IBD
IBD usually requires several medications, treatments, and surgeries that may have enduring side effects. HBOT is low-risk, non-invasive, and has very few negative side effects. HBOT can be an excellent adjunct to surgery, and many cases of IBD require intense surgeries. HBOT provides an oxygen-rich environment for the healing tissue.
During therapy sessions, a patient simply rests in a transparent chamber. The therapy is not painful or invasive. It’s low risk and has few adverse effects. It’s safe and potentially effective for IBD treatment,9 though more research is needed.
Why Isn’t There More Research On HBOT For IBD?
Most publications running studies and analysis on HBOT for IBD report symptom improvement. But the research for HBOT and IBD, admittedly, is limited. And the studies you can find often have small samples. There are several reasons for this.
Insurance coverage can vary quite a bit from provider to provider. That’s for both the insurance company’s side and the HBOT treatment center’s side. This makes it difficult to put together a sizable sample group. While the actual HBO treatment doesn’t require much from the patient, it is a time commitment. Sessions are over an hour and patients often need 22-40 sessions. Again, pulling together a group that can all meet this time commitment is challenging.
But more and more clinics are allowing some elective hyperbaric oxygen therapy. The Hyperbaric Physicians of Georgia is one of them. And while insurance coverage varies, a hyperbaric clinic that does it as an elective treatment is usually very familiar with what information your insurance would need to cover the therapy. It’s worth looking into if you’re considering HBOT.
Interested In Using HBOT for Your IBD?
Individuals with IBD who choose HBOT to use it for various benefits. These range from managing IBD symptoms to improving the outcomes after colorectal surgery. The research on the benefits of HBOT for IBD is growing, so if you’re interested but unsure, talk to your doctor.
Have specific questions about the therapy, or concerns about insurance coverage? Let’s get your questions answered. Call today at our phone number: (770) 422-0517.
[If you are considering HBOT for your IBD, or have other health concerns, we recommend speaking with your doctor. This article is not meant to replace medical advice, and can’t predict your treatment outcome or whether insurance can cover your care.]