Hyperbaric oxygen therapy used to treat radiation side effects

Published: Nov. 18, 2015 at 10:29 AM CST
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Radiation therapy is one of the most common tools to treat cancer.  It is effective, but it does not come without side effects.

Patients with head and neck cancers undergoing radiation therapy could find themselves in need of hyperbaric oxygen therapy months, or years, after being deemed cancer-free.

It is "dive" time inside the hyperbaric oxygen chambers at Lake Area Medical Center's Wound Care Center, a place Paul Haverkamp knows well.  

"It just had to be done, so I had to do it," said Haverkamp.

Haverkamp has spent a total of 60 hours diving, breathing in 100 percent oxygen under pressure, because of a condition called osteoradionecrosis.  

Dr. Gerald Mouton explains that is a delayed effect of radiation therapy to the bone.  "Radiation will cause damage to the blood vessels, scar tissue in the surrounding tissues, which makes it difficult for the body to heal itself and to fight infections."

Haverkamp went through six weeks of radiation to treat tonsil cancer.  Then, months later, he had a painful abscess on a molar.  His oral surgeon said an infection would be highly likely, unless he healed the damaged bone and tissue.

"95 percent chance if I didn't have the treatment," said Haverkamp, "and about 95 percent if I had the treatment that I wouldn't get the bone infection."

Haverkamp needed to heal his mouth from the inside out with hyperbaric oxygen therapy.

"That oxygenation helps stimulate bone development, bone growth, and it helps regranulation of tissue, or regrowth of tissue," said Dr. Mouton.

Each dive lasts between one and two hours.  Patients can nap, rest, or watch TV.

The only discomfort for Haverkamp was the ear popping.  "Clearing your ears on the way down and clearing them again on the way up," he said.

Haverkamp completed 20 dives before his procedure and 10 more following it.  He decided to have all of his teeth pulled, in case the osteoradionecrosis returned again.

"The oral surgeon told me that even just pulling one tooth, I'd have to have the treatment again if I ever had another tooth pulled I'd have to go through the whole treatment again, and so I just said 'Pull them all,'" said Haverkamp.

Today, Haverkamp is cancer-free today, with a smile he does not have to worry about.

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is not recommended for people with seizure disorders or serious heart problems.

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