Hyperbaric oxygen therapy: Can it work for long COVID?

Pooja Lodhia Image
Tuesday, January 24, 2023
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy: Can it work for long COVID?
Long COVID, with symptoms lasting months after first contracting the virus, can be debilitating. Hyperbaric oxygen chambers are being studied.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- A recent CDC survey estimated one in 13 American adults have long COVID, meaning they have symptoms three or more months after first contracting the virus.

Long COVID can be debilitating for many sufferers, and now some are turning to a medical treatment plan that hasn't been approved by the FDA, but, according to some doctors, shows promising signs.

Patients enter a hyperbaric oxygen chamber where they will be breathing in pure oxygen in a pressurized space. Imagine oxygen being pushed into places that need it.

SEE ALSO: 80% with long COVID have debilitating conditions: CDC

"Honestly, I was so desperate," patient Amanda Ballenger said with a laugh. "If you had told me to take ayahuasca, I probably would have."

Ballenger believes she got COVID-19 in December 2021. It was mild, but three months later, she was exhausted and weak, unable to even feed herself.

"I can't even explain how bad it was. It was horrific. I would kind of claw myself out of the sofa and to the car to make doctors' appointments, but I wasn't able to even drive myself," she explained. "It was really hard on both of my boys to see their mom like that."

Ballenger says doctors told her she had long haul COVID, but, because the diagnosis is so new, they didn't have many treatments to offer. So, she did exactly what most doctors will tell you not to do. Ballenger started looking online.

She ended up finding a study about hyperbaric oxygen therapy being used to treat long COVID. And when she called the Houston Hyperbaric Oxygen Center, she met Dr. Allison Boyle, a neurologist.

"I'm very opposed to hokey medicine and I'm a pretty big skeptic. I've seen the results for wound care, everybody has," Boyle, who's the center's medical director, said. "You get oxygen delivered to the tissue at risk. It heals...For these other things, we've just seen some amazing cases."

Dr. Boyle and her husband, Brad Copus, bought the Houston Hyperbaric Oxygen Center in October 2020. At first, they mostly treated burns and wounds, which are FDA-approved treatments.

But these days, about a quarter of their patients are coming for long-haul COVID treatment. It's a purpose that isn't FDA-approved, though there are several clinical trials underway.

Oxygen therapy for long COVID is also not covered by insurance. So, each session will cost you $180 to $295. If you need, say, 40 sessions, that'll be around $8,000.

"It's not for everybody. There are some ins and outs that we have to look out for, but at the end of the day, it's not harmful. And if it could potentially get you back to your normal life, I think it's definitely worth looking into," Boyle said.

Ballenger has just finished 40 sessions. She says she started feeling results on her 25th dive, and she's still improving. Today, she says she feels about 90% of her former self.

"Sometimes I still get brain fog. Sometimes I get fatigued, but it's exponentially better than it was earlier in the year," she explained.

"It's really awesome to see this huge bubbly personality out of someone that did not have that when they first walked in," Copus, who is the center's program director, said. "Yes, she's probably our happiest, most cheery patient, too, so it makes our days really fun."

SEE ALSO: Women are more likely than men to develop long COVID, study finds

Long COVID symptoms can include pain, fatigue and brain fog weeks or months after the initial infection.

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