There’s a reason radiation has the ability to kill cancer: it’s immeasurably potent.
Millions of cancer patients owe their lives to radiation therapy, but unfortunately, most of those cancer patients have also endured the side effects of radiation.
Since radiation therapy can’t specifically target only cancer cells, it must injure healthy cells and tissues in its quest to stop the spread of cancer. This creates radiation wounds that can occur anywhere from minutes to months after treatment.
Painful radiation wounds add another level of pain and discomfort to an already traumatizing cancer treatment process, which is exactly why proper radiation wound care is so important for patients. Strategic care from a qualified wound care expert can reduce the burden of radiation wounds, prevent chronic infections from developing, and help patients heal quickly.
What Are Radiation Wounds?
Radiation, the emission of energy from an unstable nucleus in the form of electromagnetic waves, is all around us. The sun itself is the most noticeable form of radiation on Earth, but radioactive substances like uranium and human-made products like X-ray machines also emit radiation. Regardless of its source, all ionizing radiation can cause damage and trauma to living tissue.
Medical treatments like radiation therapy account for 14% of all background radiation on our planet. The most common medical treatments involving radiation include CT scans, X-rays, and cancer treatments. Doctors take extensive precautions to safeguard the body from the harmful effects of radiation, but it’s impossible to fully prevent them.
This is especially true for cancer patients who undergo radiation therapy. As radiation is directly applied to targeted cancerous areas of the body, it passes through the skin and produces harmful free radicals that break strands of DNA and compromise the natural wound-healing process.
Signs and Symptoms of Radiation Wounds
Radiation damage becomes visible as burns and ulcers on the body. Radiation burns occur soon after treatment, but due to the body’s reduced capacity to heal, skin damage can last for months or years without proper intervention. This is especially true since radiation treatments are scheduled in quick succession, limiting the skin’s opportunity to heal and repair between doses.
Radiation wounds are so common that about 85% of radiation patients experience moderate-to-severe burns during and after treatment. Symptoms can vary and usually become worse over time:
- Peeling and flaking
- Soreness and swelling
- Moistness and blistering
- Pigmentation changes
Unfortunately, radiation damage to the skin doesn’t stop with burns. If exposed skin peels away faster than it can grow back, radiation ulcers develop. These wounds feel like burns, but they are non-healing ulcers that increase your risk of infection.
Is Your Radiation Wound Non-Healing?
If you’ve endured the pain of a radiation wound after cancer treatment or another source of excessive radiation exposure, your acute injuries and burns may have trouble healing.
Radiation, especially the repetitive radiation associated with cancer treatment, disrupts the carefully organized sequence of cellular interactions required for effective wound healing. As a result, radiation wounds often become inflamed, infected, and exacerbated. Your original injuries like burns, hyperpigmentation, and blisters may morph into chronic radiation injuries:
- Tissue atrophy
- Tissue death
- Vascular damage
- Deep ulcers
Non-healing radiation wounds can become extremely painful and diminish your quality of life. Only a holistic treatment plan has the potential to overcome the extensive damage caused by radiation and revitalize your body’s natural healing capabilities.
How to Help Your Radiation Wounds Heal
Radiation wounds, especially chronic wounds like non-healing ulcers, require professional treatment to heal. One single technique can’t address the complex nature of radiation wounds; only a holistic approach customized to your specific needs can deliver the best results.
Nutrition plays a larger role in your radiation wound care than you may expect. Vitamins and minerals provide fuel for cells as they heal and regenerate wounds. This means that your body’s healing process can only function optimally when all nutritional deficiencies are addressed.
Certain nutrients are especially important to the healing process. High doses of vitamin C — up to 50 times the RDA of 60 mg — has been shown to accelerate wound healing and reverse the impairment of collagen synthesis. By enhancing the production of collagen and protecting cells from free radical damage, vitamin C is a powerful force for wound healing.
Protein is also a critical nutrient in the wound-healing process because it’s the backbone of muscle, skin, and body tissue repair. Just like wood creates the frame of a house, protein creates the frame of your body. If your body is deficient in protein, it can’t produce collagen or meet the needs of injuries as they attempt to heal. It’s like trying to run an entire marathon without any water. Eventually, it becomes impossible to continue!
Continual Wound Care
Proper wound care is the cornerstone of any treatment. Establishing a steady routine of dressing, cleaning, and caring for your wound prevents additional damage and creates an environment that supports an ongoing healing process.
The best wound dressing maintains a healthy amount of moisture on the foot to create a favorable environment for the wound. It must be changed at least once or twice per day, depending on the stage and severity of the ulcer. Wound dressing helps control infection, as do antibiotics.
Offloading is also a very important but often overlooked component of diabetic foot ulcer treatment. When you offload, you remove pressure from the injured area of your body to give healthy cells the best opportunity to grow and thrive. Offloading strategies vary depending on your area of injury. You may need to sleep in a different position, use a wheelchair, or adjust certain parts of your routine.
Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy
Beyond the basic and essential elements of wound care described above, hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) also plays a significant role in radiation wound healing. HBOT is proven to optimize the pressure of tissue oxygen and is now used clinically in the treatment of chronic ulcers and radiation wound healing.
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) makes it possible to accelerate healing in your radiation wound. It uses concentrated 100% oxygen at pressures above regular atmospheric pressure to push oxygen through your bloodstream.
By adding more oxygen into the bloodstream, HBOT helps overcome the vascular changes triggered by excessive radiation exposure. Pressurized oxygen dissolves directly into the body’s fluids and is delivered efficiently to all of the cells and tissues previously strangled and damaged by the effects of radiation.
This essential benefit of hyperbaric wound care stimulates and supports the body’s own healing process. When white blood cells receive enough oxygen, they can effectively kill bacteria, reduce swelling, and allow the rapid reproduction of new blood vessels. HBOT even enables cells to build new connective tissue and improve organ function.
The Bottom Line: Expert Wound Care for Radiation Wounds
R3 Wound Care and Hyperbarics began with a mission to answer the community’s growing need for high-quality outpatient wound care services. Patients of radiation wound and other non-healing wounds need ongoing and personalized wound care in a comfortable, refreshing, and attractive environment.
R3 Wound Care now offers expert wound care services in five convenient locations throughout Texas and provides advanced therapies previously only available at large medical institutions. R3 acts on its mission to make wound healing as quick, efficient, and painless as possible.
When you trust your radiation wound treatment to the professionals at R3, you’ll benefit from R3’s private setting with the latest hyperbaric technology. Every HBOT treatment occurs in a clear acrylic chamber where you relax, recline, and enjoy a good book or movie for a few hours. You can hear and speak throughout your treatment, and the entire process is painless.
Contact an R3 Healing location near you today to learn more about this natural alternative healing treatment and its potential to finally liberate you from your chronic, painful radiation wounds.
Dr. Hina Rizvi specializes in advanced wound management and hyperbaric medicine. She is a board-certified Wound Specialist by the American Board of Wound Management and a member of the American College of Hyperbaric Medicine.