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Post Radiation Healing Complications

Treating post-radiation side effects with hyperbaric oxygen therapy

Radiation therapy is commonly used in the treatment of cancer and has cured, or extended the lives, of untold numbers of cancer survivors. However, radiation can have an adverse effect on normal tissue, primarily by causing inflammation of the tiny capillaries that provide oxygen to all the tissues in the radiation field. Over time, these capillaries scar, preventing blood flow and oxygen from reaching the tissues.

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) raises tissue oxygen levels above normal to restore healing capacity to tissues otherwise unable to repair themselves. Recently studies have also shown that HBOT leads to the release of stem cells from the bone marrow – migration of these stem cells to tissues changed by radiation may be an important factor in the increased healing associated with HBOT.

Although the process is slow, often requiring several weeks of treatment, HBOT is a useful tool for healing tissues damaged by radiation therapy.

Tissues and organs most commonly affected by radiation therapy

  • Head and neck,
  • Chest wall
  • Bladder
  • Rectum

Our team at the Hyperbaric Medical Center works with surgeons from each of those specialties to both prevent and heal problems in the body caused by radiation therapy.

Head and neck

Radiation is life saving for patients with tumors of the salivary glands, nasal cavity, throat, tonsil and larynx. Radiation treatment may cause changes in the tissues around these tumors, resulting in significantly impaired healing. These changes may take months to years to develop. Osteoradionecrosis (ORN), the spontaneous breakdown of tissue covering the jaws (or failure of healing following dental surgery), is a devastating problem and can result in loss of the lower jaw. A combination of HBOT and surgery can lead to healing. HBOT should also be considered prior to dental surgery procedures, such as removal of teeth from the lower jaw, to help prevent healing complications.

Chest wall

In rare cases, radiation therapy for breast cancer coupled with surgery for tumor removal can result in a wound that fails to heal. HBOT, combined with wound care and treatment of infection, can lead to healing, functioning as a bridge to reconstructive surgery.

Urinary and bladder

Bladder cancers may be treated with radiation; more commonly, the bladder is damaged during radiation therapy to treat prostate, cervical, uterine or colon cancer. Changes in the bladder may take months to years to develop. The most common symptoms are bleeding (possibly severe), chronic pelvic pain or impaired bladder function. Deep ulcers may develop in the bladder, leading to a perforation into the bowel or vagina. HBOT may help reverse these symptoms and can promote healing of the bladder.

Ano/rectal

Colorectal cancers may be treated directly with radiation, or damage is caused when the colorectal area is exposed to radiation therapy during treatment of prostate, cervical or uterine cancer. Changes in the bowel may take months to years to develop. The most common symptoms are bleeding, chronic pelvic or rectal pain or impaired bowel function. Deep ulcers may develop in the colon leading to a perforation into the bladder or vagina. HBOT may help reverse these symptoms and can promote healing of the bowel.

Skin

Skin cancers may be directly treated with radiation, or the skin is damaged through exposure to radiation during treatment of soft tissue cancers. Changes in the skin and underlying tissue may take months to years to develop, and the most common symptoms are non-healing skin wounds. Also, deep ulcers may develop and affect underlying bone or muscle. HBOT may help reverse these symptoms and can promote healing of skin wounds.