With running, hiking, biking, and water sports season at its peak during the summer for both athletes and visitors alike, we need to take into consideration acute mountain sickness (AMS). When a person travels from sea level to 9,000 feet and immediately goes running, hiking, climbing, or mountain biking, he or she has the potential to develop early symptoms of acute mountain sickness. Risk factors include home elevation, maximum altitude, sleeping altitude, and rate of ascent, age, gender, physical condition, level of exercise, pre-acclimatization, genetic make-up, and pre-existing diseases.
Upon quickly climbing to 10,000 feet, a person can develop headaches and sleeping problems, which are the first signs of AMS. Then AMS can progress onto shortness of breath, loss of appetite, light-headedness, nausea, weakness, tiredness, dizziness and clumsiness. When the disorder progresses even further, severe symptoms include disorientation, tremors, vomiting, ataxia or loss of consciousness and blue lips and fingertips. The physiological effects include the lungs taking in less oxygen and this means less oxygen is available to transfer into the blood, tissues, and organs. Our bodies will counterbalance low oxygen by increasing the heart and respiratory rates, allowing more blood to be pumped through the body. When the respiratory rate is increased then the carbon dioxide is not being expelled, leading to respiratory alkalosis.
There is research being done on the increasing number of visitors to mountain towns and ski resorts at moderate elevations and the use of oxygen for mild and severe cases. If the symptoms are mild, one should rest, drink water, eat light carbohydrates, and monitor oxygen levels with a finger pulse oximeter. In Summit County we prefer oxygen saturation to be above 90 percent.
In Western medicine, if the symptoms of AMS are bad enough, emergency services should be called in. Most likely an ambulance would be utilized to take the patient to lower elevations with intravenous fluids and oxygen given, thus resolving the symptoms. Two potentially fatal complications that emergency services should be called for are high-altitude pulmonary edema or (HAPE) and high-altitude cerebral edema or brain swelling (HACE).
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is a complimentary treatment for altitude sickness, because there are excellent herbal medicines and acupuncture protocols for mild symptoms. There are two trials that compared prescriptions of TCM used alone compared with Western drugs. The analysis showed a significant beneficial effect of Chinese formulas used alone compared with Western drugs in decreasing the symptoms of AMS.
To determine a treatment plan, we take a look at the patterns. The symptoms from an Eastern medicine approach put into categories would look as simple as: qi, blood, and body fluids. The first is spleen qi deficiency along with blood deficiency, which show signs as poor appetite, abdominal distention after eating, tiredness, pale complexion, and loose stools. As the spleen’s function of transportation and transformation decreases, it creates accumulations internally. A Chinese herb called dong chong xia cao, or cordyceps, is used to warm the body and boost yang qi, and give the ability to regulate water metabolism and resolve dampness. This reinforces the spleen and stomach, to calm the heart, which alleviates insomnia. Cordyceps is a mushroom that is known to grown on the bodies of worms and insects in the Tibetian pleateu. Traditionally, cordyceps is used for asthma and allergies, cancer support, and certain types of pain and fatigue. At times, athletes have also used it as an energy booster.
People who live at high altitude experience changes in their blood that help compensate for the low oxygen levels. There are more red blood cells retained in circulation and more hemoglobin to carry oxygen. These changes take about a week or two at high altitude to develop. Most mountain climbers do not spend this much time at high altitude and thus have to deal with only acute reactions to altitude.
Being educated about altitude differences and how the body responds physiologically and energetically can prevent altitude sickness. If an individual does get altitude sickness, steps can be taken that can provide a speedy recovery without spoiling the fun. At TLC Acupuncture & Natural Medicine, we can help you get back to your summer enjoyment and feeling your best!
Tami L. Clark is a Doctor of Natural and Sacred Medicine and an NCCAOM board certified, licensed acupuncturist in the state of Colorado, as well as a Reiki master/Teacher, a nationally certified Auricular Therapist and a nationally certified biofeedback practitioner. She is also a mom of four great kids, a part-time ski instructor at Breckenridge Ski Resort and has lived in the county for fourteen years.
Tami L. Clark, DNM, Dipl.Ac, LAc, CBC, ACIC,