Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy & Long COVID

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Long COVID is not a disease, it is a syndrome. In medical terms, a syndrome is a set of symptoms that relate to each other and are often associated with a particular disease or disorder. This is often confused with the actual disease, for example HIV is the virus that, if uncontrolled, can manifest as AIDS.

Think of this as driving a car over a nail: the nail is the disease, the syndrome would be the cumulative signs of a deflated tyre, poor steering, damaged rims, increased fuel consumption or immobility of the car. It is important to remember this when looking at Long COVID.

Long COVID is a symptom or a cluster of symptoms that can arise from exposure to SARS-CoV-2, a virus that affects an unusually large number of different tissue types. SARS-CoV-2 enters the cells throughout the body causing inflammation and damage to the surrounding tissue due to the body’s immune response as it fights the infection.

Fatigue and ‘brain fog’ are two of the most common symptoms of Long COVID however the problem is that these are symptoms that are only known to the sufferer. This often leads to the sufferer being misunderstood. Physical signs such as a rash, swelling or a cough on the other hand are visible to a doctor.

Researchers have tied Long COVID-related symptoms to tissue damage in specific sections of the brain and actual shrinkage in its size, which whilst being frightening, is a medical sign that can actually be measured and understood.

Shai Efrati, Medical Director of the Sagol Center for Hyperbaric Medicine and Research in Tel Aviv, Israel noticed tissue death on brain scans of Long COVID patients. He recognised brain lesions similar to ones he had already treated with hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT). Efrati stated, “Once we saw that, we said, this is the type of wound we can treat. It doesn’t matter if the primary cause is a mechanical injury like TBI [traumatic brain injury] or stroke… we know how to oxidize them.”

HBOT aims to increase the amount of oxygen a damaged tissue receives to speed up the healing process. Air is made up of approximately 21% oxygen, but inside a hyperbaric chamber the atmospheric pressure can be increased to up to twice of the pressure at sea level. During HBOT, the patient breathes pure oxygen through a mask which saturates the blood and plasma with much higher levels of oxygen. This in turn diffuses through the damaged capillaries of a wound to promote healing and regeneration.

Efrati’s now well-publicised clinical trials using before-and-after MRIs showed significant repair of damaged tissue in the brain, and functional cognition tests improved substantially among those who received pure oxygen during HBOT. Most importantly, 80 percent of patients said they felt back to ‘normal’.