From mending those scraped knees of childhood to adulthood illnesses and injuries, our bodies have complex and remarkable healing capabilities. Sometimes we may suffer an injury that is difficult for the body to handle, and those natural healing processes need a helping hand. Difficulty in healing may happen because of the severity of a wound, or a health condition that compromises the body’s ability to heal.
Wounds that won’t heal – also known as chronic or slow-healing wounds – are a significant health concern. When you’ve been injured, ill or undergone surgery, an important part of your successful recovery is not only taking care of the original illness or injury, but also the proper healing of any wounds associated with your condition.
Nearly seven million people across the United States suffer from chronic or slow-healing wounds. Wounds fall into two categories: acute and chronic. Acute wounds are related to an accident, injury or surgery. Chronic wounds can also be related to an injury, surgery – but are most often, a health condition that impedes normal healing. If a wound does not heal within a month, and requires medical intervention, it is considered a chronic or slow-healing wound.
Certain chronic conditions can complicate the healing process and lead to serious health problems, such as infection or nerve damage. These conditions include diabetes, peripheral neuropathy (nerve disorders affecting the hands or feet), and circulatory system disorders, as well as a variety of other health issues, including: Peripheral arterial disease, Peripheral vein disease, Traumatic injury, Autoimmune disorders (rheumatoid arthritis, or lupus), Inadequate or poor nutrition, Cancer treatment/effects of radiation or chemotherapy, or Vascular (vein) disease.
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These diseases affect blood flow and nerve sensation, which slow healing. Certain medications can also suppress the normal healing response.
The good news is that a variety of medical treatments are available to help wounds that won’t heal. Many hospitals offer specialized care for chronic wounds and their underlying causes, such as inflammation, infection, or chronic disease.
One of these treatments is hyperbaric oxygen therapy, which can speed the healing process and rebuild skin integrity. With this treatment, the patient lays inside a sealed, high-pressure chamber, breathing pure oxygen. The pressurized chamber – similar to one used for an MRI exam – surrounds the body’s tissues with concentrated oxygen. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy increases the concentration of oxygen in the bloodstream, which improves circulation of blood to damaged tissue, and ultimately, promotes faster healing.
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy was originally used to treat disorders related to diving, so, a treatment is sometimes referred to as a “dive.” The process is painless; some patients will experience pressure in the ears at the beginning of treatment, similar to flying in an airplane. Each treatment is typically two hours long, and patients often read, sleep or listen to music during a therapy session.
Chronic wounds that are often treated in this way include diabetic skin sores, sores associated with bone infections, and those wounds associated with the affects of radiation.
You generally need a referral from your doctor for hyperbaric oxygen therapy. Treatment usually begins with tests to learn about your medical history, including any circulation issues, infection, and other conditions that may affect wound healing.
(Editor’s Note: Scott Bolhack, M.D. is the Medical Director for the Wound Care Center at Northwest. His office may be reached at 520-469-8168.)