Explosions from improvised explosive devices (IEDs), bombs, breaching blasts, large-caliber weapons fire and even repeated small-arms fire produce blast waves that affect the brain and other internal organs. Traumatic brain injury (TBI) events have become common in the military and veteran communities over the last 20 years of sustained combat operations, leading to a huge increase in diagnoses of Operator Syndrome and post-traumatic stress (PTS).
USMC photo by Photo by Lance Cpl. Daniel E. Valle
When faced with these conditions, many veterans experience severe pain, reduced cognitive function and an inability to sleep, stay focused or hold coherent conversations. They can suffer other personality issues, problems with coordinated movement and disruption to visual, hearing or speaking functions.
In essence, trauma can cause the brain to work differently than it did before the blast or concussive event. This can change the personality of a person with TBI in ways that make it difficult for family, friends and even themselves to recognize the person they knew.
I’ve had discussions with friends undergoing Department of Veterans Affairs-prescribed treatments with a dozen or more prescription drugs to help with the pain and disrupted hormone levels. I also have found several veterans who tried special treatment using nothing but oxygen under pressure. Like our Draeger dives in the SEAL teams (pure oxygen under pressure with no bubbles), the hyperbaric chamber oxygen treatment (HBOT) is a natural way to help with healing that uses techniques familiar to many in the diving community.
HBOT has been a saving grace for the more than 100 veterans sponsored by the nonprofit America’s Mighty Warriors (AMW). The organization is the common denominator between several of my friends who have received the specialized treatment.
About America’s Mighty Warriors
America’s Mighty Warriors was created by Gold Star mother Debbie Lee as a tribute to her son, Navy SEAL Marc Lee, who was killed in Ramadi, Iraq, in 2006. The organization helps other Gold Star families with retreats and counseling, and the group has created a community for veterans who need help with addiction, pain and PTS or TBI conditions. The program pays for veterans to receive HBOT in clinics around the country. Read the testimonials from veterans who have received the therapy, but do your research too.
If you are at a point where other treatments are not helping, start your journey on HBOT by reading HBOT therapy pioneer Dr. Paul Harch’s book “The Oxygen Revolution: Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy: Breakthrough in Gene Therapy for Traumatic Brain Injury and Other Disorders.” See more about Dr. Paul Harch in this interview:
SEAL Testimonial from a friend of mine for over 20 years:
Fred received 60 chamber treatments: (Navy SEAL 18D Medic - 30 years of Navy / Contractor deployments) - He writes:
For an outsider reading this, he/she may think that a psychotic individual was operating at the most elite level in the world. Just to clarify, my brain was operating at such an extreme high level for so many years, pushing the mental and physical limitations of the human body – and then adding in all the trauma associated with our specific line of work, the result was a brain that was not able to function normally. Here is a short list of some of the symptoms I was experiencing:
High Cortisol levels
Loss of appetite
Hypersensitivity to any light
Hypersensitivity to sound
Could not be in crowds.
Short fuse with moods swings
Lack of patience
Extreme memory impairment
After treatment, I felt my body, mind and spirit literally connect. Colors became bright and clear. Shapes and forms became vivid. Music would resonate with my spirit. I was looking at the world around me through different eyes. I was finally grounded. My brain was not racing at warp speed anymore. I had focus. My memory was rapidly improving. By the end of these 2 weeks, I had a new life. In total, 60 dives. My normal, what I thought was normal, was not normal, with respect to society around me. My new normal is glorious, although a great deal slower in pace, which required a huge adjustment in my way of thinking and living. One of the key indicators quantifying the results was revealed in my post SPECT Scan. Amazing regeneration of new blood pathways had taken place. Many of the holes seen in my pre-scan were gone. Non-functioning areas were functioning again.
HBOT is nothing new. The diving community and the Defense Department have been treating diving accidents for decades with chamber therapy. In fact, the technique has been around for more than 300 years, and the Mayo Clinic states that HBOT can be used to treat a variety of medical conditions that require more oxygen:
Bubbles of air in your blood vessels (arterial gas embolism)
Carbon monoxide poisoning
Infection of skin or bone that causes tissue death
Non-healing wounds, such as a diabetic foot ulcer
Skin graft or skin flap at risk of tissue death
Traumatic brain injury
Sudden vision loss
How HBOT Works
HBOT corrects oxygen deficiencies in the body by using the increased partial pressure of oxygen to stimulate genes to code for growth and repair hormones that then repair wounds in the body. Speaking specifically about veterans (and football players), the same growth and repair hormones can help repair traumatic brain injuries when introduced to more oxygen.
“Damaged cells start working better, growth and repair hormones are elaborated, and you grow new tissue,” Harch says about the treatment.
West Point Grad / Army Officer Experiences TBI and HBOT Therapy
See full video with Iraq veteran Maj. Ben Richards. Richards describes how HBOT helped him recover from two TBI events after a long journey that included drugs with known suicidal side effects that were prescribed by the VA.
Treatment consists of 40 one-hour “dives’’ in a hyperbaric chamber filled with 100% oxygen that then is pressurized to 1.5 atmospheres. There are different protocols depending on whether the ailment such as foot wound healing or carbon monoxide poisoning. The introduction of the extra oxygen into the brain initiates the creation of new blood vessels (angiogenesis) and the repair or regrowth of brain cells.
The before-and-after SPECT scans help show the difference after 40 dives. Comments from the patients undergoing this therapy range from “life-changing” to “this saved my life.” SPECT scans are single-photon emission computed tomography and monitor the level of biological activity in the 3-D region it scans.
See the before and after pictures below:
Some Controversy in HBOT (VA and DoD Acceptance)
Even though many reputable medical programs and doctors have approved the uses for HBOT therapy as listed above, the Defense Department and VA are not currently approving the treatment. Veterans who are receiving this treatment are doing it at their own expense or with special programs like America’s Mighty Warriors, even though there has been both political and scientific persuasion to change the policy.
There are competing studies and evidence that claim to disprove the benefits of hyperbaric oxygen treatment. See TBI Specialist Dr. David Cifu from the VA study on HBOT.
My conclusions are offered as a non-medical professional who has made active duty and veteran health and wellness my platform. “Chamber rides” as we called them, use oxygen as the drug and are natural to the healing process.
What is NOT natural is countless prescriptions (many with side effects of potential “suicidal thoughts”). These are not the long-term answer to healing or even treating the multiple symptoms of TBI, PTS or the newly coined condition Operator Syndrome.
Given the changes in people’s lives I have personally witnessed and the countless more I have read about during the research of this article, we should do more for our veterans and thoroughly test to learn if HBOT works as a long-term solution or not not dismiss it as a sham.
Medical / Legal Disclaimer
“The information provided does not constitute a medical recommendation because I, Stew Smith am not a medical professional - just reporting on options to treatment available to veterans. It is intended for informational and educational purposes only. Please consult with your primary care physician for a detailed medical evaluation of your personal and specific health needs and recommendations.”
Additional Discussion About HBOT with Wes Irvin
Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Tactical Fitness Programming Store if you’re looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Consider this! New Rules for Fitness Over 40
Are you over 40 years old with a burning desire to get started again and progressively build up your fitness from beginner to advanced levels? Do you want to be who you were yesterday (20 years ago) and not have to be in pain or experiencing the pain of failing?
Step 1: Drop what you're doing and read this tactical fitness article about the New Rules For The Person Over 40 right now!
Step 2: Get all the details you need in the four part series Tactical Fitness 40+. on how you can easily be who you were yesterday ... Read more about a few changes you need to know about Fitness Over 40 at StewSmithFitness.com.
What is Tactical Fitness? Primarily the fitness required to get into and remain in the military, police, fire fighter, EMT services. The goal of tactical fitness is to create a strong and capable body to save yourself and others in an emergency situation. But we all should be strong and capable enough to save ourselves and others in such situations (accidents, fire, storms, etc). Be an asset in an emergency situation. Do you need to be saved? Or can you take care of yourself and your loved one?
Think about it...
The following rules are part of the programming used in the 52 week – four part training series: Tactical Fitness 40+. From Rebuilding the Foundation to getting Ready to Compete, this series uses the following four rules religiously.
Even well into your 50-60s, you can still do advanced level workouts with these rules, just make sure you actively pursue recovery methods like eating well, sleeping, hydrating, breathing deeply, taking rest days, as well as the following NEW RULES:
NEW RULES for Fitness Over 40:
You can no longer out work your diet – Focus on smaller portions, avoid junk food, sugar, even decreasing / eliminating sugar, do not avoid fruits /vegetables as these are good carbs that are high in nutrients you need for energy and recovery, and drink more water. This one takes discipline as the old habits of eating like we were highly active 20-year olds is a tough one to break, even if you are still highly active after 40 years old.
Run every OTHER day – Unless you are still competing in races or under 200 lbs. of body weight, consider running every OTHER day instead of daily or 5-6 times a week. Replace some of the running days with non-impact cardio options (bike, row, elliptical, swim) on the days in between running days. You can still train hard 5-6 days a week, just give your body a break from the impact by doing challenging non-impact options. You can build up distance or speed as you prefer on your running days to help you maintain abilities in many tactical professions, keep weight down, especially if still taking military fitness tests.
Lift But Differently - If you are an easy gainer and can quickly get strong and bulky with a lift cycle, you can still lift, but make sure you follow lift cycles with a good amount of cardio (run, bike, elliptical, swim). If you can keep off the extra weight that comes with increased strength during lift cycles, your next cycle of cardio / calisthenics (periodization) will be much easier. Face it - losing weight is tough after 40. Running heavy is even tougher.
- Add a mobility day each week – You can either replace a typical challenging workout with this mobility or add it to a day off each week. It is simple but effective. See routine options below:
Repeat 5 times
Bike, elliptical, row, or swim 5 minutes
Foam roll, stretch, car buffer massage 5 minutes
Regardless of your goals, the mobility day added to mid to late week will enhance the later workouts of the week or weekend and help you walk out of the gym feeling no pain! If you feel you need it, do the mobility day two times in a week.
- Learn how to foam roll, stretch daily, car buffer – That is right! A car buffer (small hand car buffer made by Ryobi for $30 at Home Depot) is what I use to get a deep vibration that is soothing to the muscles. This must be an orbital / vibrating car buffer not a rotary (spinning) car buffer. Apply to joints, muscles, lower back for near immediate soothing effects. But stretching and a foam roller should be the mandatory parts of this rule – DAILY.
- In conclusion, my final piece of advice is to get lighter – try not to gain too much weight, even during heavy lifting cycles. It is easy to gain a pound or two a year and in 5-10 years “suddenly” be 10-20 pounds overweight. Being lighter is just easier to move, less pressure on your joints, and typically means you have a healthy fat to body mass ratio. I have found that the heavier I am the worse my blood screening numbers are and it hurts more to run.
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