By Sarah Carnvek
Critically ill patients who are confined to a bed know that bedsores are uncomfortable. Worse, the sores also pose life-threatening dangers. Now there's good news for these sufferers: An Israeli research team recently announced that common fish oil helps heal pressure sores and may also alleviate pain.
Tel Aviv University Prof. Pierre Singer of the Sackler Faculty of Medicine, and doctoral candidate Miriam Theilla at the Rabin Medical Center in nearby Petah Tikva, designed a randomized experiment to determine the impact of dietary fish oil supplements on the bedsores of critically ill patients.
Chock-full of Omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants, fish oil has long been known to help lower blood pressure, reduce inflammation in the skin and joints, and promote healthy fetal development. But Singer, a renowned expert in the fields of intensive care, nutrition and metabolism, says while "it seems obvious [that fish oil can help heal bedsores], there wasn’t a lot of evidence and therefore we needed to do basic research."
Singer and his fellow researchers looked at results of a previous study showing that dietary fish oil supplements for critically ill patients raised oxygen levels in body tissues. They set out to determine whether the supplement could also help heal bedsores, which form under conditions of a lack of oxygen, reduced blood flow and moist skin.
The researchers developed a randomized study with 40 critically ill patients. Half the patients were given standard hospital diets, and the rest had eight grams of fish oil added to their food every day.
After three weeks, those who were ingesting the fish oil experienced not only a significant lessening of pain and discomfort from bedsores — a 20 to 25 percent improvement, according to the Pressure Ulcer Scale for Healing — but also a more efficient immune system and reduced inflammation throughout the body.
Eating right to heal wounds
"Wound healing is a very important issue," says Singer, who has over 30 years of clinical and academic experience. "And I think if people can understand that nutrition can help wound healing we'll be on the right track."
The relationship between nutrition and wound healing has been documented for centuries. But Singer reiterates that "research in nutrition is not very developed. There was no clear evidence that [fish oil] helps. [Our research] is a piece of evidence that has to be more developed."
Apparently the oil led to targeted activity among white blood cells.
"We saw a modification in the expression of a group of molecules associated with directing leukocytes, or white blood cells, in the direction of the wound, which could explain the improved healing," explains Singer.
The researchers also noted a significant decrease in the amount of C-reactive protein in the blood, which is associated with inflammation and linked to viral and bacterial infections, rheumatic diseases, tissue injury and necrosis.
A spoonful of oil for pain
Known for wearing numerous hats at once, Singer is simultaneously director of the general Intensive Care Department and the Institute of Nutrition Research at Rabin Medical Center; and head of the Nutrition Committee at Clalit, Israel’s largest public health organization.
He hopes his team will next prove that a spoonful of fish oil is better than popping pills when it comes to pain management.
Based on their findings regarding bedsores, the Israeli research team has decided to explore the use of fish oil as a method of natural pain management.
They will do this by measuring the intensity of reported pain in postsurgical patients after knee or hip replacements and comparing it to the amount of fish oil the patient received.
"We're waiting to see if fish oil can reduce painkillers," says Singer of the new blind study. "We believe we will have good results."