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Researchers divided over effectiveness of hyperbaric oxygen for traumatic brain injury treatment

Oklahoma lawmakers want to make a type of experimental therapy available for free to veterans with traumatic brain injury. But some researchers question the treatment, saying it’s ineffective at best and potentially dangerous at worst.
by Silas Allen Modified: April 20, 2014 at 3:00 pm •  Published: April 20, 2014

Two years ago, Oklahoma National Guard Capt. Matt Smothermon spent months trying to write a single page that would get him back into law school.

The page sat unfinished on his kitchen table for months, he said. The trouble was, the thing he was trying to explain on that page was the thing keeping him from writing it.

“I couldn’t write it,” he said. “I sat down and tried to write it over and over and over and over, and I couldn’t do it.”

Smothermon credits an experimental treatment for his recovery — a treatment that Oklahoma lawmakers are seeking to make available, for free, to any veteran who needs it. But some researchers question the treatment, saying it’s ineffective at best and potentially dangerous at worst.

Proponents tout the use of hyperbaric oxygen therapy as a major breakthrough in the treatment of traumatic brain injury. But the therapy, commonly used to treat divers with decompression sickness, hasn’t received FDA approval for the treatment of brain injury. Worse, the FDA warns that patients receiving the therapy are at risk of serious injuries.

Bombs take toll

Smothermon was a platoon leader on a route clearance team in the Oklahoma National Guard’s 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team. During deployment, his platoon was exposed to three separate bomb blasts. Smothermon was hospitalized with traumatic brain injury.

When his unit came home, Smothermon hoped he’d make a full recovery and be able to return to law school. During a meeting with the dean of the University of Tulsa law school, the dean told Smothermon he could write a one-page explanation about why he’d been away from school and what his symptoms were, and he’d likely be able to restart school.

It sounded like an easy task, he said, but he couldn’t do it. The symptoms he was supposed to explain kept him from organizing his thoughts enough to focus on the explanation.

Then, Smothermon heard from one of the soldiers in his unit about hyperbaric oxygen therapy. The treatment places the patient in a chamber in which air pressure is raised several times higher than normal, allowing the lungs to gather more oxygen.

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by Silas Allen
General Assignment/Breaking News Reporter
Silas Allen is a news reporter for The Oklahoman. He is a Missouri native and a 2008 graduate of the University of Missouri.
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