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Breathing easy while sleeping could combat symptoms of altitude sickness

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April 14, 2014

A link found between breathing patterns and altitude sickness symptoms could lead to a tre...

A link found between breathing patterns and altitude sickness symptoms could lead to a treatment (Photo: Shutterstock)

Headaches, nausea, weakness and dizziness, combined with a feeling that you just can’t get enough oxygen with each breath are just some of the signs of altitude sickness. Researchers have now found a link between the abnormal breathing patterns experienced while sleeping at altitude and the symptoms of altitude sickness, particularly headaches. The finding suggests that finding a way to breath normally while sleeping could provide a way to combat such symptoms.

Breathing patterns are affected by the fall in the partial pressure of oxygen at altitudes higher than around 2,500 m (8,200 ft). While awake, climbers are able to regulate their breathing consciously, but when asleep a cycle known as Cheyne–Stokes breathing is experienced. This involves an alternation between rapid, deep (hyperventilation) and slow shallow (hypoventilation) breathing, with periods where breathing stops all-together, known as apnoea. This pattern is the body’s response to varying concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) and oxygen in the blood and is an attempt to regulate these levels.

"The lack of oxygen at high altitude causes the climbers to hyperventilate, which leads to a decline of CO2 in the blood," explains Peter Stein, who is in the department of anesthesiology, intensive care medicine and pain therapy at University Hospital Frankfurt. "The decline of CO2 leads to episodes of hypoventilation or even apnoea when the conscious breathing control subsides during sleep. As a consequence the oxygen level drops, causing an arousal and subsequent hyperventilation.”

To investigate breathing patterns at altitude, a group of medical researchers from Germany followed six mountain climbers up Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, hauling a bunch of gear up the mountainside to the base camp, at around 4,000 m (13,100 ft) elevation. To monitor concentrations of oxygen and CO2 in the blood going to the brain, the researchers attached NIR (near infrared) electrodes to the climbers’ foreheads while they slept. NIR spectroscopy is a technique that identifies molecules based on their absorption and reflection of light at near infrared wavelengths.

"The most challenging part was to transport not only the NIR spectroscope into basecamp but also all the equipment necessary to provide electricity," Stein said. "Therefore we bought a lightweight generator and enough fuel to provide power throughout all the nights.”

It was found that the Cheyne–Stokes breathing pattern caused changes in the total haemoglobin and oxygenated haemoglobin but not in the concentration of deoxygenated haemoglobin. From this they concluded that, while the abnormal breathing pattern did alter the flow of blood to the brain, it did not reduce the amount of oxygen reaching the brain tissue.

Another interesting correlation was that climbers most prone to headaches were those who experienced Cheyne–Stokes breathing patterns at night. From this they concluded that possible measures for the prevention of symptoms of altitude sickness such as headaches might be developed by understanding and treating these abnormal breathing patterns.

"Our experiments reveal a pathomechanism contributing to the aetiology of the most common symptom of altitude sickness: headache," says Stein. "I hope that based on our findings it will be possible to develop new therapeutic approaches that help to increase comfort and safety for climbers in the future."

Findings of the research were published in the Journal of Near Infrared Spectroscopy.

Source: IM Publications

3 Comments

Having lived in Colorado, and worked in elevations up to 9,500 feet I can say clearly that I have seen many people that go from 50 feet to a mile, to nearly 2 miles in altitude, and experienced all sorts of living Hell.

A girlfriend who did marathons, 26.2 miles in running, went to hike in the Himalayas. In no time did this finely in shape driven/focused person find herself with a serious case of altitude sickness. The Sherpas that saved her life told her that she was more suspectable to have altitude sickness because she was athletic and just suddenly came up there. She had to be carted down in altitude where she stayed in a Sherpa hut for nearly a week before she could hike down on her on.

Many in Colorado's upper mountains will say that it takes about a year to be fully acclimated. As a marathon runner myself, I think there is some truth to that. Genetics might play a significant role too as it does in so many things. For some reason I have not had altitude problems --yet--. I am going back up there in May. Reports later...

lwesson
15th April, 2014 @ 10:01 am PDT

When I go visit my parents in Durango, it takes me several days for the "mild" symptoms of headache, dry mouth and vertigo to dissipate. My wife on the other hand, has no issues with the altitude!

Ed
15th April, 2014 @ 11:42 am PDT

Too bad they didn't bring along a CPAP machine. That probably would have prevented the sleep apnea. The last time I went to a high elevation city, I came down with high altitude pulmonary edema during my third night at altitude. I hadn't brought my CPAP machine with me. I was fortunate that the hotel kept oxygen bottles on hand for their guests with altitude sickness. That saved me from having to take an ambulance ride to the hospital. From now on, I'll always take my CPAP machine with me on trips to high elevations.

HenryFarkas
16th April, 2014 @ 12:12 pm PDT
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