Of the more than 500 million reported cases of COVID worldwide, studies show that up to 30% of those infected continue to suffer with long COVID.1 This novel condition is defined by symptoms that last more than three months after illness onset and may include ongoing fatigue, cough, fever, pain, difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, heart palpitations, digestive problems, and/or neurological issues such as brain fog, headaches, trouble sleeping, depression and anxiety.2 

Red identifies increased blood flow in the brain (Photo by Aviv Clinics)

With no single therapy identified to rid long haulers of symptoms, research continues with much focus on the virus’s effect on the brain. Sars-cov-2 is known to travel through the nose into the olfactory sensory neurons (the reason many lose taste and smell) and into the frontal lobe of the brain (the insula) which manages memory and executive function. Studies show that the virus can also destroy blood vessels that feed blood to the brain further affecting function.3

In a recent study published in Scientific Reports (July 2022) hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT), which is commonly prescribed to enhance wound healing, carbon monoxide poisoning and decompression sickness, showed promising results in relieving long COVID symptoms.4 The prospective, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial was conducted by Israel’s Sagol Center for Hyperbaric Medicine and Research at Shamir Medical Center and Tel Aviv University.

HBOT involves breathing 100% (pure) oxygen while in a controlled space called a hyperbaric chamber. The air pressure inside is raised to a level that is higher than normal which helps the lungs collect more oxygen and more effectively deliver that oxygen to damaged tissues, thus expediting the healing process. 

Of the 73 patients in the study, those who received the specialized HBOT protocol performed in a multi-place chamber had significant improvement in global cognitive function, energy, sleep, psychiatric symptoms and pain interference according to researchers. Participants in the control group did not show significant improvement. Researchers believe the beneficial effects may be attributed to increased brain perfusion (blood flow) and neuroplasticity in regions associated with cognitive and emotional roles. Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to form new connections and pathways and change how its circuits are wired.5 Researchers state that previous studies have demonstrated several neuroplasticity effects including anti-inflammatory, mitochondrial function restoration, increased perfusion and the growth and migration of stem cells.3

“Millions of those who have recovered from COVID-19 are experiencing debilitating symptoms which persist for weeks, months or even years following their original infection,” said Chief Researcher Amir Hadanny, MD, PhD. “Until today, no effective therapy has been suggested. Our research is the first randomized controlled trial to demonstrate a real solution for the long haulers.” 

Research group leader Shai Efrati, MD, director of the Sagol Center and chair of Aviv Scientific’s Medical Advisory Board added, “The study revealed that HBOT can induce structural and functional repair of the damaged regions of the brain and improve the cognitive, behavioral and emotional function of the unfortunate patients suffering from post-COVID-19 conditions.”

Lauren Del Sarto is founder/publisher of Desert Health and can be reached at [email protected]

References: 1) Logue, J. K., Franko, N. M., McCulloch, D. J., McConald, D., Magedson, A., Wolf, C. R., et al. (2021). Sequelae in adults at 6 months after COVID-19 Infection. JAMA Netw. Open 4:210830; 2) https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/long-term-effects/index.html; 3) https://aviv-clinics.com/blog/science/long-covid-explained-the-symptoms-and-why-they-stick-around/; 4) https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-022-15565-0; 5) https://positivepsychology.com/neuroplasticity; 

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