Assessing Mild Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (MHOT) in the treatment of the chronic pain I have been experiencing as a C5/6 quadriplegic.
Being a quadriplegic I have battled a number of different sources of pain that have at times completely consumed me and my ability to pursue much of a “normal life.” By normal I mean in the way of having the ability to be doing the things I’d actually like to be doing- going out with friends, rehabbing my body, enjoying the outdoors, participating in positive conversations and not having to rush home from work to climb directly into bed. The persistent pain from a taxed nervous system, musculoskeletal misalignment and sore and spastic muscles had me convinced that simple comfort was something that was slipping further and further away from me. I was often finding myself mentally tormented by my inability to participate in the world around me.
I’ve most often explained my nerve pain as a superficial burning that can ebb and flow throughout the day, dipping and diving depending on body temp, seating position, spasticity, hydration, state of my bladder, digestion and of course stress. All of these things integrally affect one another by the moment.
If you’ve had the experience of taking a short break from the hot tub to jump in powder snow and then returned to the hot tub to be met by the burning pins and needles of a confused nervous system, then you’ve felt something similar to my nerve pain. If that’s not as widely a shared experience as a Colorado raised kid would think, then imagine the pins and needles of standing on a foot that has fallen asleep and is slowly waking up covering 85% of your body. Ruthless, uncomfortable and unfortunately part of my life, I had accepted this as a part of my injury.
Over the past four years, my experience with nerve pain has dictated my bandwidth for most everything in life. Everything from my ability to comfortably sit through a workday and have energy for much of anything after work, to how much sleep my body will allow itself throughout the night is affected by these unrelenting pins and needles.
There are additional layers of musculoskeletal pain from 6 years of posture forced by not-quite-right seating systems and prioritizing long days behind a desk over the time consuming pursuit of physical therapy. The constant battle against atrophy, pinched nerves, sore muscles and tightening ligaments add more layers that constantly irritate and often leave me feeling twice my age when it comes to physical bandwidth. I push my body incredibly hard through all this pain as moving forward through my day is often the only effective distraction.
My first experience with Mild Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy came as a suggestion from Andrea while I was dealing with a pressure sore that did not seem to want to move in the right direction. It was the second pressure sore I had experienced, the first of which left me in bed for four months waiting for my poor circulation to slowly close a wound on my leg smaller than a quarter. It was devastating when my second pressure sore showed up on the end of my toe- a small red mark that slowly turned into another stent on bed rest as sitting in my chair was only moving it in the wrong direction.
After seeking out a Mild Hyperbaric Oxygen Chamber (MHOC) in nearby Vancouver, WA, I committed to 13 hours to see if it was for me. My body responded to the chamber almost immediately. Within my first couple sessions you could visibly see the circumference of the wound shrinking.
Somewhere around the 10th hour, I experienced a session that was noticeably different from those before. When the chamber pressurized, I noticed that my nerve pain, which had been quite fierce that day, was suddenly nearly nonexistent. At that time, the reduction in pain only lasted while I was in the chamber. I didn’t pursue this curiosity any further, as I was originally there for the pressure sore which was rapidly resolving itself. It was also quite a challenge to fit commuting into my schedule in a way that allowed me to have consecutive treatments, so I stopped traveling to Vancouver, though the pain relief that I had experienced during my final few sessions stuck in my mind.
Fast-forward a few months and my third pressure sore unfortunately came into my life and in the worst possible place – right on my ischial tuberosity, aka butt, a region that takes a lot of pressure while sitting.
Everything about having to be on bed rest due to a pressure sore can have a negative impact on your health – you’re moving even less, appetite decreases, sleeping is difficult and stress factors increase. You can also feel your muscles quickly atrophying, which is quite painful. The best thing to do is get out of bed as soon as possible, though your bodies ability to heal self dictates that timeline. It’s really quite a helpless feeling being stuck in bed for that long- especially when you’re seeing the wound move in the wrong direction.
As a healthcare professional, Andrea was quite amazed with the chamber’s ability to expedite the pressure wound healing process that I had previously experienced as well as intrigued by the many other health issues the MHOC could potentially help with. Andrea had been interested in acquiring a MHOC for her health and wellness clinic for a multitude of reasons and seeing me suffering, she decided there was no better time to make it happen.
So a MHOC suddenly shows up at our front door and I get to be the lucky guinea pig. We knew it was going to help the pressure sore so at that point the nerve pain and the other benefits it could potential bring were not really even on my radar. During my second session in the chamber I experienced the same reduction nerve pain that I had experienced months before, the only unfortunate thing being that upon depressurizing I could feel the nerve pain creeping back over me.
This trend continued throughout the next 10- hour-long sessions- the same reduction in pain with nerve pain returning upon depressurizing.
Then, I started to notice that the pain reduction was lasting longer and longer. First it was a few hours after the session and then it was throughout the night. Then amazingly, I started to notice I was in less pain at work, a place where I can clearly gauge what type of shape my body is in around the time I take my noon meds.
I was also noticing that while in the chamber, my body seemed to be in a state of complete calm and badly desiring rest, ready to heal and exhausted from it. I started to realize that my nervous system has been in a state of shock for nearly 7 years and this was the closest I have felt to being in my former body. The reduction in my nerve pain was so significant and so profound that I started to take for granted the other effects that were taking place in my body.
After 15 hours, my pressure sore was nearly nonexistent, I was sleeping much better and more consistently through the night, and the reduction in nerve pain was significant enough that I considered discontinuing a nerve pain medication called Lyrica that I had been taking over the past year.
I can only imagine September and hours 20-40 would have been much easier had I not decided to discontinue the Lyrica. I stayed vigilant about spending time in the chamber but my body was going through all sorts of Lyrica withdrawal related hell. One consistent thing with the chamber sessions was that I would always experience the reduction in pain while pressurized. Unfortunately, my spasticity and other symptoms from the Lyrica withdrawal would come right in behind the chamber session and start kicking my ass. It was frustrating, but I knew that my body was still moving in the right direction and getting rid of something that could make me feel this nasty could only be a good thing. I routinely imagined that it would’ve been a nearly impossible experience without the relief from the chamber sessions.
Throughout September, it was noticeable that I was feeling much better in some regards while still suffering in others. Andrea was amazed that you couldn’t even find the spot where my pressure sore had previously been. Before the chamber, the sore looked like it would’ve left a significant a permanent scar.
I started to notice many other changes as well- I was sitting in my chair for much longer after work and my energy levels had drastically improved. The significant edema that I used to deal within my feet was nearly nonexistent and my hemorrhoids were trending in a positive direction. My body was much warmer and not constantly catching chills. I also found myself forgetting to take my spasm medication Baclofen at my normal intervals, as my body wasn’t calling as loudly for it.
Most amazingly, as I sit here today, I do not feel the burning needles poking through my skin. I occasionally feel warm, dull needles and my musculoskeletal pains source is more evident as well as digestive and bladder issues more defined due to not having the blanket of nerve pain.
Andrea and I were reflecting on my experience with MHOT and how my health has benefited and she asked if I “thought my nerve pain was 50% better?” I didn’t hesitate in replying “more like 80%!” With this decrease in nerve pain I hope I can begin to effectively tackle some of the other painful issues with my body as I now have more bandwidth for exercise and therapy. I’m also finding more energy to go out and participate in the activities in life that make me feel “normal,” realizing that for now the physical downward spiral I thought was inevitable has come back into my control.