by Mark Kahn

From mending those scraped knees of childhood to adulthood illnesses and injuries, our bodies have complex and remarkable healing capabilities. Sometimes, however, 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 making sure any wounds associated with your condition heal properly.

Nearly 7 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 or surgery – but are also related to 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.

Other health issues that may make wound healing difficult include:

• Autoimmune disorders (rheuma toid arthritis, or lupus)

• Inadequate or poor nutrition

• Cancer treatment/effects of radiation or chemotherapy

• Vascular (vein) disease

• Congestive heart failure

• Peripheral arterial disease

• Traumatic injury

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. Chestnut Hill Hospital offers specialized care for chronic wounds and their underlying causes, such as inflammation, infection, or chronic disease.

A leading treatment for wound care 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 surrounds the body’s tissues with concentrated pure 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.” While 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, pressure sores, persistent skin irritations, vessel disease wounds, surgery wound breakdown, traumatic wounds, burns, venous insufficiency, radiation injuries, spinal injury wounds and other non-healing wounds.

Your doctor will generally refer you to a wound care treatment team 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.

Learn more about the services available at the Comprehensive Center for Wound Healing at Chestnut Hill Hospital and HBO therapy by calling 215-248-8601.

Mark Kahn, M.D., is a vascular surgeon and chair of the Comprehensive Center for Wound Healing at Chestnut Hill Hospital.

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