NATICK, Mass., Oct. 6, 2006 – Scientists at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine are investigating ways to help soldiers adjust to high-altitude environments.
Soldiers being sent to Afghanistan are often quickly deployed to high-altitude environments via helicopter, leaving little time for their bodies to adjust and putting them at risk for contracting high-altitude sickness.
High-altitude conditions, which include adjusting to less oxygen and thinner atmosphere, can impact even the most physically fit soldier.
According to the institute's Dr. Stephen Muza, high-altitude conditions, at a minimum, affect stamina and cause soldiers to fatigue much more quickly. Other problems can develop as well.
The most prevalent type of altitude sickness is acute mountain sickness, which can cause headaches, dizziness, nausea, and make it difficult to fall asleep. According to Muza, acute mountain sickness typically occurs within 4-12 hours.
Although most people experience the aforementioned symptoms of the sickness, 100 percent of the population experiences a decline in task performance.
"Soldiers can still make accurate decisions, but it takes them longer to do so. Altitudes above 5000 feet can impair vision, especially the ability to see color," Muza said.
Acute mountain sickness symptoms will often dissipate once a soldier's body adjusts to the high-altitude environment, but sometimes the sickness can intensify into pulmonary edema, which is caused by a build up of fluid in the lungs and can lead to shortness of breath and heavy coughing.
Acute mountain sickness can also transform into cerebral edema, which is caused by an increased blood flow to the brain. Cerebral edema can cause swelling, disorientation, hallucinations and can impact physical coordination. It can be deadly if left untreated.
Research institute scientists are investigating the use of pre-exposure to high-altitude conditions to prevent altitude sickness to help soldiers who need to make sudden and prolonged ascents to altitudes of 5,000 to 14,000 feet.
Soldiers will perform a myriad of typical tasks in the research institute's Hypoxia Room and Hybobaric Chamber, which replicates a high-altitude environment.
The Hypoxia Room is a low-cost, low-oxygen environment and can be replicated anywhere, even in small nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) shelters.