By: Annie Farasopoulos
UBS Hyperbarics Safety Director
From the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, several symptoms became calling cards for coronavirus: fever, fatigue, low oxygen saturation rates accompanied by difficulty breathing, and skyrocketing immune responses known as “cytokine storms”. For reasons we don’t yet fully understand, there have also been lingering effects for some of those who were able to fight for their lives but were not quite able to return to normal levels of activity or health.
Utahns turned extensively to more “natural” methods of treatment as a way to fortify their immune systems in hope of lessening the effects of COVID (before the vaccine emerged as a reliable method of preventing illness) and as a comfort to soothe their anxiety around getting the virus. Despite concentrated efforts in preventing the virus, for some the vaccine arrived too late: while most recovered fully, about 10% of patients who have gotten COVID nationwide continue to feel the effects long after their antigen tests have returned negative results and doctors say they should have been fully recovered; these patients are now known as Long Haulers. If that describes you or a loved one, we believe we may be able to help.
HYPERBARICS AND PREVIOUS PANDEMICS:
Though it may seem like new or uncharted territory to treat COVID with hyperbaric oxygen therapy, there is actually precedent to our approach. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HB02) was still a relatively new treatment at the time but during the Spanish Flu, less-developed hyperbaric chambers were used to treat patients who experienced some of the symptoms that our COVID-positive patients and our Long Haulers are experiencing today.
A Cleveland doctor named Orval Cunningham noticed that Spanish Flu was more deadly in the high altitude regions of the US- especially the Rocky Mountain area, where mile-high elevation levels meant the air was thinner (less oxygen due to less atmospheric pressure). Cunningham hypothesized that the additional pressure from a hyperbaric chamber would drive oxygen into the bloodstream at a greater rate than at the surface, and he was right; his initial patient, a male who was described as “comatose, obtunded, and near death”, was able to open his eyes and was even “roused to consciousness” during his first dive in the primitive hyperbaric chamber.
Citing his previous successes, Dr. Cunningham continued to treat severely ill Spanish Flu patients until the end of the pandemic was declared. Also in use at this time was Cunningham’s somewhat-infamous “Hyperbaric Hotel.” Inside this 5-story round building that looked more like an undersea creature than a traveller’s dwelling, there were 12 “rooms” per floor where patients could recuperate. The rooms were large and some housed multiple patients. Unfortunately, due to a lack of understanding of fire risk and a complete lack of safety protocols (they understood the relationship between pressure and the human body, but not the flammability and issues accompanying those risks), the hotel actually burned down not once but twice before they opted not to rebuild. During this flu outbreak, however, it served thousands of critically ill citizens, who were reported to have made good recoveries. You’ll also be pleased to know that safety standards have come a very long way since Cunningham’s time, and we maintain and operate our chambers at Utah Body and Soul the same way that a hospital program would.
RESULTS OF PRESSURE-RELATED TREATMENTS FOR COVID:
You may be reading this and thinking, “Okay, that was 100 years ago. COVID is way more complex- why haven’t I heard of HBO2 on the news? Why hasn’t it been widespread as a common treatment if it works?” The answer is a little more complicated than the simple statement of, “There simply isn’t enough data to convince the FDA,” although that’s certainly a large part of it.
Coronavirus has many facets which still aren’t understood, and the very nature of hyperbarics makes it difficult to quickly study its effect on illnesses (at least while using methodology approved and preferred by the FDA). Because the virus is so new, there hasn’t been much in the way of verified/published clinical research concerning HB02 and its efficacy in treating COVID-19. We do, however, have some data from China and Italy, where physicians began treating their most severely-affected patients using hyperbarics with promising effects, and we have data from Louisiana’s Dr. Paul Harch, who also began treating patients fairly early-on during the pandemic. There are other studies in the works at hyperbaric hubs around the country and we are eagerly awaiting distribution of their results.
Utah Body and Soul has also begun treating Long Haul/ post-COVID patients with what seem to be promising results. Patients who have been treated have described “having more energy,” “feeling less overall fatigue,” “being able to really focus again,” “feeling less grouchy,” “no more insomnia,” and “reduction of swelling/inflammation” and “eradicated muscle aches.”
- LONG’S TREATMENT RECOMMENDATION FOR LONG-HAUL COVID:
Through research and discussion with other hyperbarics programs who are also currently treating Long Haulers, Dr. Long’s recommended course of treatment for Long Haul/Post-COVID is to start with between 10-20 dives at a pressure of 2 ATA for 90 minutes. 2 ATA (two “atmospheres” of pressure) is the hyperbaric pressure equivalent of being underwater at 33ft, breathing 100% oxygen. During your free consultation with Dr. Long, she’ll be happy to discuss and implement a treatment plan for you; certain past events in your medical history (head injuries, strokes, etc.) may require shorter dives at more “shallow” pressures .
We have begun treating post-COVID patients at 2ATA for 90 minutes with good results. Some see reduction in their symptoms and side-effects right away, some see a gradual increase in energy, cognition, and their overall feeling of wellness. Some, usually those who are experiencing brain fog, headaches, and fatigue, may feel tired. We advise you to check in with your body and with Dr. Long as treatments proceed and let us know how you’re feeling. The process is very much individual and no two patients are the same.
Call us at 801-987-8786 to schedule your free consultation with Dr. Deanne Long, our medical director, or if you have any questions.