Could this be a cure for concussions?

March 25, 2016 | Updated: 8:42 p.m., April 5, 2016

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WESTWEGO, La. (WGNO) - The idea first intrigued Dr. Paul Harch nearly thirty years ago, as he treated commercial divers in Louisiana who'd gotten "the bends"-- a lack of oxygen to the brain from surfacing too quickly.

Dr. Harch, a graduate of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the first President of the International Hyperbaric Medical Association, began to believe that the pressurized oxygen he was using to treat divers' injured brains, might be a treatment for other brain injuries as well.

Hyperbaric oxygen treatment (HBOT) involves surrounding the patient with pure oxygen while increasing the atmospheric pressure to a level that's about what a diver experiences at 16 feet below sea level. The result is an increase in blood flow to the injury, and in turn, a growth of new tissue.

The treatment is invisible, painless, and controversial.

HBOT is Medicare-approved for diabetic foot wounds, and it's sometimes used to repair damaged tissue caused by burns.

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But the treatment is not approved for brain injuries.  Despite years of research, Dr. Harch has not been able to persuade the medical establishment that HBOT could heal a range of brain injuries caused by everything from bomb blasts to concussions.

Symptoms of brain injury include:

  • Becoming fatigued easily
  • Disordered sleep
  • Headache
  • Vertigo or dizziness
  • Irritability or aggression with little or no provocation
  • Anxiety, depression, or affective lability
  • Changes in personality (e.g., social or sexual inappropriateness)
  • Apathy or lack of spontaneity

Now, as the U.S. military struggles to treat thousands of brain injured veterans, and as the NFL and collegiate football programs struggle with a growing fear of concussions, Dr. Harch is hopeful that the series of treatments he has developed will come into widespread use.  And he's getting support from LSU Head Football Coach Les Miles.

Miles says he first heard about Dr. Harch's studies a couple of years ago, and he's become so convinced that the treatment works, that he wants a fully-staffed HBOT chamber in a hospital, as close as possible to Tiger Stadium.  It hasn't happened yet, and Coach Miles says he doesn't understand the resistance from the Baton Rouge medical community.

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But Dr. Harch says his work is controversial for two reasons.  He says the medical establishment tends to resist new treatments in general, but he also says that other doctors are looking at old studies that have had only moderate success. Dr. Harch says his treatment-- 40 sessions in the chamber, spaced out over several weeks-- gets remarkable results, and he says he has the brain scans to prove it.

Dr. Harch, and neuro-psychologist Dr. Susan Andrews, are starting a government-funded, free medical trial for brain-injured veterans, and you can find out more information here.

For more information about Dr. Harch and his clinic, click here.