Tissue damage following radiation therapy? Oxygen can fix that.

Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy is a proven way to treat radiation wounds some may suffer during cancer treatment

About half of all cancer patients receive some type of radiation therapy during the course of their treatment, according to the National Cancer Institute. Radiation therapy uses high-energy radiation to shrink tumors and kill cancer cells.

Dr. Sonja Lichtenstein
Dr. Sonja Lichtenstein, wound care and hyperbaric physician at the St. Joseph’s/Candler Center for Hyperbarics and Wound Care – Moss Creek

Today’s highly-precise technology, such as TrueBeam and CyberKnife radiation therapies, minimizes damage to surrounding cells and tissues. However, some of the tissues in the path of the radiation can occasionally become damaged in the process. Soft tissue radionecrosis occurs when there is damage to normal tissues during the routine course of radiation therapy for a cancer.

Radiation effects the blood supply to tissues, which results in a lack of oxygen and nutrients to the affected tissues, explains Dr. Sonja Lichtenstein, wound care and hyperbaric physician at the St. Joseph’s/Candler Center for Hyperbarics and Wound Care – Moss Creek. The tissues then become fibrous and poorly vascularized but are still able to survive. However, a trauma or infection can cause the tissues to die.

“Even though the area had enough oxygen to keep the tissues alive, it doesn’t have enough oxygen to heal the area,” Dr. Lichtenstein says.

Not everyone who receives radiation therapy will experience soft tissue radionecrosis. It is most often a result of radiation therapy treating cancers in the head, neck and pelvis area, Dr. Lichtenstein says. While there is no medicine or topical to treat soft tissue radionecrosis, hyperbaric oxygen therapy can treat damaged tissues.

How does hyperbaric oxygen therapy work?

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy floods the blood supply with 100 percent oxygen at greater than normal atmospheric pressure, typically two to two-and-a-half times greater, Dr. Lichtenstein says. With hyperbaric oxygen therapy, more oxygen is dissolved into the plasma and diffuses into the tissues much easier. By diffusing into the tissues, the oxygen helps wounds heal faster or wounds that otherwise wouldn’t heal at all.

For patients receiving hyperbaric oxygen therapy to treat radiation damage, treatments are typically two hours a day, five days a week for four to eight weeks. Patients lie in a hyperbaric chamber (a big glass tube) and breathe in 100 percent pure oxygen. They are able to talk to the staff, watch television or a movie or take a nap.

Related Article: How oxygen is used to treat chronic wounds with hyperbaric oxygen therapy

Studies have shown that the response to hyperbaric oxygen therapy helps treat soft tissue radionecrosis around treatment 20 and lasts for more than three years.

“Not everybody who gets radiation ends up with problems, but for the ones that do, it is important for them to be aware of hyperbaric oxygen therapy as an option to give those patients long lasting improvement,” Dr. Lichtenstein says.

Patient success stories

The St. Joseph’s/Candler Hyperbaric and Wound Care Centers (Bluffton, Savannah and Hinesville) have treated many patients with radiation wounds with positive outcomes.

Dr. Lichtenstein recalls one patient who had been in remission for nine years following treatment for squamous cell carcinoma of the neck. He developed tracheoesophageal fistula, which is an abnormal connection between the esophagus and the trachea, with associated aspiration pneumonia. Whenever the patient tried to swallow something it would go down into his lungs. The attempt to repair surgically did not heal well because of the patient’s damaged tissue from radiation.

Doctors told the patient he was going to have to live with a feeding tube. That wasn’t the answer the man was looking for, Dr. Lichtenstein recalls the patient telling her. He made an appointment with SJ/C’s Bluffton Hyperbaric and Wound Care Center, and within four weeks, the feeding tube was out and he was eating normally.

Dr. Lichtenstein also helped treat a gentleman suffering late effects of radiation damage following treatment to the pelvis region. The bladder and rectum are especially sensitive areas to radiation treatment. Damage to the tissue can result in bleeding in the urine or stool and inflammation to the organ.

This patient had repeatedly been hospitalized for hematuria, or blood in the urine. Conservative measures with cauterization did not help, Dr. Lichtenstein says. The patient began hyperbaric oxygen therapy and the bleeding resolved within 10 treatments.

“I think a lot of people when they have problems like these live with it because, ‘At least I don’t have cancer anymore,’ and they don’t know what else is out there,” Dr. Lichtenstein says. “Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is a big commitment, but if you are having problems and there’s no other way to fix it, it really is your best and only option.”

Visit one of our Hyperbaric and Wound Care Centers today

St. Joseph’s/Candler has three Centers for Hyperbarics and Wound Care: Bluffton, Hinesville and Savannah. No physician referral is needed.

SJ/C Center for Hyperbarics and Wound Care – Moss Creek
19 Moss Creek Village, Suite B4
Bluffton, SC 29926

SJ/C Center for Hyperbarics and Wound Care – Hinesville
103B General Stewart Way
Hinesville, Ga. 31313

SJ/C Center for Hyperbarics and Wound Care – Candler Hospital
Heart and Lung Building, Suite 201
5353 Reynolds Street
Savannah, Ga. 31405

  • St. Joseph's Hospital Campus: 11705 Mercy Blvd., Savannah, GA 31419, (p) 912-819-4100
  • Candler Hospital Campus: 5353 Reynolds St., Savannah, GA 31405, (p) 912-819-6000
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St.Joseph's Hospital Campus: 912-819-4100

Candler Hospital Campus: 912-819-6000