© 2024
Virginia's Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Could pure oxygen relieve long COVID?

Long COVID patient Mia Hamza relaxes inside a hyperbaric oxygen chamber
Long COVID patient Mia Hamza relaxes inside a hyperbaric oxygen chamber

32-year-old Mia Hamza has come to Charlottesville Hyperbarics for treatment of Long COVID. The professional yoga teacher and hiking guide settles onto a narrow bed in a clear tube where she’ll watch a movie while breathing pure, pressurized oxygen for an hour. Hamza says she’s nearly recovered after only five treatments.

“After the first session the exhaustion and brain fog were significantly better, and by today I feel that those have completely cleared.”

Hamza was pleased by not really surprised.

“I knew about it from my husband who had a traumatic brain injury and was a veteran,” she explains. “It did help him. It was like night and day!”

Proponents of hyperbaric oxygen therapy do recommend it for traumatic brain injury and many other conditions.

“They’ve been using it for multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, Asperger’s and autism – everything they can come up with where you have desperate people and desperate family members,” says David Cifu, a neurologist at Virginia Commonwealth University.

He got $20 million from the Department of Defense to study hyperbaric oxygen treatment or HBOT for traumatic brain injury.

“The military thought they were going to find something, and I went into it believing it was going to work, and we saw nothing!”

Actually, what he saw suggested resting in a hyperbaric chamber could produce small, temporary improvements, even without pure oxygen.

“Everybody who was either in the real HBOT chambers or in the sham ones felt better for about six weeks, but then after that they went back to their baseline.”

HBOT has proven effective in treating deep sea divers who come up too quickly and develop decompression sickness or “the bends.” It’s also approved for healing wounds, radiation burns, bone infections and nine other medical conditions, but the FDA says it’s seen no evidence that HBOT is useful for brain injury.

At Tel Aviv University, Professor Shai Efrati disagrees. He claims COVID can cause brain damage that persists for months or years. Some cells die, but he believes others can be healed.

“In the center of the wound we see necrotic tissue that is totally lost," he explains during a TED Talk. "Surrounding this necrotic tissue we see tissue that if we will bring good oxygenation, stem cells, the wound can heal.”

His team did a double-blind study of 73 long COVID patients treating half with pure oxygen while the others were assigned to a placebo group. After 40 treatments lasting about 90 minutes each, Efrati reported significant improvement in those who were given pure, pressurized oxygen.

So what should long COVID patients consider before committing to HBOT? First, it is viewed as safe when properly administered, but insurance won’t cover it. The cost at Charlottesville Hyperbarics is $200 per treatment. Medical Director Wes Howard can’t say how many treatments will be needed but feels the price is reasonable.

“If you said that ten to maybe 40 treatments would bring an end to Long COVID, people who might have Long Haul COVID for years would say that’s worth the price,” Howard says.

But he concedes this treatment may not work for everyone with Long COVID.

“There seems to be different types of Long Haul COVID,” he explains. “Is hyperbaric good for all of them? We’ll eventually have enough evidence to know that.”

Proponents of hyperbaric oxygen treatment are frustrated by the lack of funding for clinical trials, but patients like radio producer Jane Little are not waiting for data.

“If we feel better and can function better, then it works!” she concludes.

Little admits, however, that lying still for an hour, without interruption is heaven and may help all of us to feel better.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief