How Can Radiation Damage Be Helped With Oxygen Therapy?
After your cancer radiation treatments are finally finished, the last thing you want is more treatments for health issues. Unfortunately, radiation therapy frequently comes with a host of problems, even after radiation has been complete for some time.
Most radiation-related issues resolve on their own. Yet many people suffer from late-term radiation injuries. An injury is officially late-term when it’s present at least six months after the last radiation treatment.
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) is a prime treatment for long-term radiation. About a third of people receiving the treatment are receiving it for that very problem.1 Tissue damage from radiation (also known as soft tissue radionecrosis) is one of the thirteen diagnoses, according to the Medicare Coverage Database, approved for HBOT treatment.2
Do you experience any of these long-term effects of cancer radiation therapy?
- Constantly chewing gum or sucking on hard candy due to dry mouth
- A wound or rash that doesn’t get better, especially in the radiated area
- A dry cough or lung pain
- Difficulty eating and swallowing
- Painful, frequent, urgent, or blood-tinged urination
- Painful, frequent, urgent, loose, or blood-tinged bowel movements
- Chronic, severe breast pain
- Skin, vaginal, or mouth breakdown and infections
If it’s been longer than six months since your last radiation treatment, and you’re still experiencing radiation effects, you may qualify for hyperbaric oxygen therapy.
HBOT as a delayed radiation injury treatment
Radiation therapy for cancer targets your body’s cells that produce the fastest. Once a patient finishes their cancer treatment, it’s not uncommon for them to be plagued by issues related to the death of their healthy cells.
Many tissues in your body that regenerate at a fast pace are not cancerous. Mucous membrane linings, such as in the mouth and in the stomach, have a high cellular turnover.3 This results in problems that range from annoying to detrimental to your quality-of-life.
So what kinds of things can HBOT help?
Extremely dry mouth/oral tissue breakdown
Radiation therapy damages mucous membranes that produce saliva in the mouth. Having your body produce little saliva isn’t just uncomfortable. It makes eating and swallowing more challenging. You may have experienced discomfort even in talking. Radiation also puts the teeth, gums, tongue, and cheek lining at risk for breakdown and infection.4 Research and testimonies from very relieved patients have supported that HBOT increased saliva production.5
Increased infection risk
Because radiation breaks down tissue, it’s easier for germs to get into the body and cause infections. This often causes a lot of anxiety for people trying to live their normal lives after radiation therapy. If an infection does arise, antibiotics can be especially hard on the radiation-damaged digestive system. If bone or tendon is exposed, then healing is challenged again. And a post-radiation body already struggles with poor immunity. HBOT steps in by reducing inflammation and killing bacteria.6
Up to 95% of people receiving radiation therapy experience negative skin changes of some kind. While it can be as mild as simple swelling, many people suffer much more severe skin damage. It’s only perpetuated by the poor immune system.
Tissues close to the surface of your skin are fed by capillaries. Capillaries are made of cells that have a high turnover rate, so they become prime victims of radiation therapy. When these capillaries die, the tissue suffers as well. These radiation burns are often large and painful, and they look like a rash or a burn from a liquid. Some radiation wounds involve exposed or damaged bone.7 HBOT benefits these wounds by stimulating cell growth. (Read more about the process in our Wound Healing & HBOT article)
Radiation damages normal epithelial cells in the lungs and the esophagus. These cells produce various secretions that help your airway stay clean, lubricated, and comfortable. Your lungs are vulnerable organs when healthy, so radiation creates even more risk for breakdown and infection. It can mimic lung infections like bronchitis, or lead to true infections.8 So what does HBOT do? It stimulates the growth of new cells while providing the oxygen you need.
Treating radiation tissue injury has body-wide benefits
HBO treatments are not painful, and frequently have benefits that span throughout your whole body. Your tissues get the boost they need in healing and maintenance. When your mucous membranes are restored, saliva and mucus get produced more. This makes speaking, swallowing, and breathing much more comfortable.
Most of your cell’s processes involve oxygen. Using energy to make new cells is one of the most important. Normally, your body would deliver oxygen without a problem through your blood system. However, since capillaries are damaged, and tissues already compromised, the body is stuck in a self-destructive loop. It needs oxygen to fix the oxygen transport system.
With HBOT, the need to use the vascular system is overridden to a degree. It stimulates the production of more red blood cells and leads to the growth of new blood vessels. This gives your body a better opportunity to heal, decrease inflammation, reduce pain, and lower the risk of infection.
HBOT involves increasing the outside pressure to more than sea level pressure. This pushes the oxygen into the body from the outside. Even if you breathed in 100% oxygen through a mask, you couldn’t experience the same benefits.
Unlike radiation therapy, HBOT negative side effects are possible, but not expected. Your HBOT staff will monitor you closely. Thankfully, the closest similarity between radiation therapy and HBOT is the frequency of treatments.
Many patients even say that they have more energy and an improved mood after HBOT!
How can I get HBOT for my radiation injuries?
Because the medical issues requiring HBOT are complex, HBO therapy is usually a part of a multidisciplinary plan. If you’re considering HBOT, you might need input from your cancer doctor, a wound care specialist, or a specialist in the area that was radiated. However, many people don’t need a referral.
If you’re experiencing late-term effects of radiation, talk to your doctor about integrating HBO therapy into your plan of care. Here at Hyperbaric Physicians of Georgia, we admire your strength in pushing through radiation. We’d be honored to assist you in getting back to as close to normal as possible with HBO therapy.