Between two percent and 4% of the populations in Western countries have the chronic condition,
90% of whose sufferers are women.
Doctor Andy Chiou (L) speaks to patient Carl Dolson in a hyperbaric chamber in Peoria, Illinois.
Tel Aviv University researchers have found that treatment in a hyperbaric (high-pressure) oxygen chamber improves the condition of women suffering from fibryomyalgia – a syndrome characterized by chronic widespread pain and a heightened and painful response to pressure.
Between two percent and 4% of the populations in Western countries have the condition, and 90% of those sufferers are women. Until now, there has been no effective treatment for it.
The TAU -led team – which also included scientists from Assaf Harofeh Medical Center in Tzrifin, Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba, Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center, and Rice University in Houston, Texas – recently published its findings in the open-access journal PLoS One (Public Library of Science One).
The researchers developed an innovative and effective oxygen treatment that they say “improved significantly” the condition of 70% of the women who participated in the clinical study, and could alleviate the suffering of millions of (mostly) women around the world.
Until now, the exact cause of fibromyalgia – which is related to chronic fatigue syndrome – was unknown. Experts have said it involves genetic, psychological, neurobiological and environmental factors.
It is usually triggered by head trauma, a neurological infection or serious and continued emotional stress. However, because the exact cause was unknown, doctors have been treating only the symptoms, and even this has been largely ineffective.
Now, for the first time, the Israeli research has identified the primary factor causing the syndrome: the disruption of the brain mechanism for processing pain. The pain that is the condition’s main symptom appears to result from neuro-chemical imbalances – including activation of inflammatory pathways in the brain, which results in abnormalities in pain processing.
The brains of people with fibromyalgia show functional and structural differences from those of people without the condition, but it has been unclear whether the brain anomalies cause fibromyalgia symptoms or are the product of an unknown, underlying common cause.
“In previous studies in the hyberbaric chamber [at Assaf Harofeh], we found that a series of treatments significantly improves the condition of stroke and head-trauma patients,” said Dr. Shai Efrati, director of the Segol Hyperbaric Center and a member of the Segol School for Brain Sciences at TAU . “We found that high-pressure oxygen brings about the renewal and repair of damage in the brain tissue of these patients, even many years after the injury.”
As a result, the doctors decided to see if the technique was effective for treating other brain disorders, and chose fibromyalgia. Sixty women, ages 21 to 67, who were diagnosed with the condition underwent high-resolution brain-mapping (to show brain activity). They were then randomly divided into two groups: a control group that did not receive any treatment, and another treated with hyperbaric oxygen.
The treatment group underwent five exposures per week for an hour each over two months in the closed chamber.
The air inside had 100% oxygen at a pressure of two atmospheres, twice the conditions of regular air.
“The result was very encouraging,” said Efrati. “The condition of seven out of 10 improved so much that they are no longer identified as fibromyalgia patients.”
The team carried out more brain mapping on the treated women and made an important discovery.
“We found changes in the brain that were compatible with the improvement in their clinical condition, and we identified exactly the brain regions responsible for fibromyalgia,” said the doctor.
“For all practical purposes, we identified the source of the syndrome and proved that fibromyalgia is harm to the pain-processing mechanism in the brain. In the oxygen chamber, the root of the problem – the damaged brain tissue – is treated, which is why it is so efficient. It is likely that in the future, we may even be able to diagnose the condition on the basis of the characteristics we observed in brain-mapping.”
The researchers are continuing to conduct comprehensive studies on renewal of brain tissue under hyperbaric conditions.
Their next study will be on patients with light cognitive decline, which could be the beginning of dementia.
The brain-mapping technique the team used was done with technology developed by late TAU physicist Prof. Eshel Ben-Jacob, who had previously speculated that hyperbaric treatment could “help patients in the early stages of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease and prevent the patient’s decline.
Maybe in the future, we will be able to give the brain ‘anti-aging treatment’ that will fortify it and preserve its function until the patient’s last day.”