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Doctors using specialized oxygen therapy to treat ulcerative colitis

It's a painful, debilitating disease that impacts almost a million people, but now doctors are using hyperbaric oxygen therapy to treat it.

CHICAGO — Hyperbaric oxygen therapy has been around since the 1940’s when it was first used to treat scuba divers who had decompression sickness. More recently, it’s become a successful treatment to help burn victims and heal wounds. Now, doctors have found that it’s helping to ease the pain caused by a debilitating disease that impacts almost a million people. 

During hyperbaric oxygen therapy treatment, patients breathe in pure oxygen with air pressure levels up to three times higher than average. It’s been used on a wide variety of problems and now, doctors at Northwestern are using it to treat ulcerative colitis.

“Ulcerative colitis is an autoimmune disease of the colon. Basically, your body's immune system thinks the bacteria in your colon are bad and they keep trying to fight them off. And the bystander in the whole process is your colon that suffers,” explains Parambir Dulai, MD, a gastroenterologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

Medications that suppress the immune system work for a while, but 70 percent of people will lose response to them within a few years, and many will need surgery. Now, there is another option.

Dr. Dulai further explains, “Hyperbaric oxygen therapy just drives a ton of oxygen into tissues by giving 100 percent oxygen. It's just driving it into the colon instead of other tissues.”

In a phase two study, patients were placed in the chamber for 90 minutes. After five days, their bleeding was gone. The effects lasted for more than three months.

“You're talking about people who might need to lose their colon and you're preventing that and immediately, they're getting better. They're feeling better. They just feel more energetic. They feel that sense of relief. And I think it just gives them hope,” Dr. Dulai expresses.

Later this year, Dr. Dulai hopes to begin an 18-site phase three clinical trial. He hopes what they find will be especially helpful for patients who live in rural areas and don’t have access to larger research facilities.

If this story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Shelby Kluver at shelby.kluver@wqad.com or Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at mthomas@ivanhoe.com.

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