Ask anyone who has climbed California’s Mt. Whitney and they’ll warn you about the danger of altitude sickness. Hike to the top of Mt. Whitney’s 14,505 foot summit either too fast or without acclimating to the thin air and you can be stopped in your tracks by a crippling fatigue, nausea, headache and dizziness. I know the feeling. It happened to me last summer on my third ascent of Mt. Whitney.
“A really nasty hangover” is how Grant Lipman, MD, an emergency medicine physician, describes acute mountain sickness (AMS). Lipman and his colleagues at Stanford University School of Medicine say a widely available over-the-counter painkiller may help mountain climbers, skiers and hikers avoid the symptoms of altitude sickness.
In a study published online in the Annals of Emergency Medicine, Stanford researchers say ibuprofen, an anti-inflammatory drug often used as a painkiller, was found to significantly reduce the incidence of altitude sickness.
In the study, 86 men and women traveled to the White Mountains near Bishop, Calif. They spent the night at 4,100 feet and were given either 600 mg of ibuprofen or a placebo, before heading up the mountain the next morning. They were given two more doses as they hiked up to 12,570 feet and spent the night on the mountain.
In the group that received ibuprofen, 43 percent suffered symptoms of altitude sickness, while 69 percent who received the placebo had symptoms. In other words, ibuprofen reduced the incidence of the illness by 26 percent. The researchers also observed less severe symptoms in those who took ibuprofen, but the reduction in severity was not statistically significant.
At high altitudes, the air has fewer oxygen molecules. Some researchers think altitude sickness occurs because a lack of oxygen to the brain causes it to swell with fluids. If left unrecognized or untreated, it can lead to high-altitude cerebral edema, an often-fatal swelling of the brain. Ibuprofen may help to reduce that swelling.
The findings could prove especially useful for skiers or hikers who plan short vacations at high altitude and don’t have time to acclimate. “You don’t want to feel horrible for 15 to 20 percent of your vacation,” Lipman said. “Ibuprofen could be a way to prevent AMS in a significant number of the tens of millions of people who travel to high altitudes each year.”
Other drugs are available to prevent acute mountain sickness, such as acetazolamide and dexamethasone, but they have more side effects than ibuprofen, which is usually well tolerated. “If you are heading to the mountains,” Lipman said, “take some ibuprofen the day you go.”
The research was funded by Stanford’s Division of Emergency Medicine and the American Alpine Club