Stanford University researchers have discovered a way to kill the horrible "hangover" symptoms that afflict those susceptible to altitude sickness: ibuprofen.
And they discovered this with one of the most atypical, and scenic, double-blind placebo-controlled drug experiments ever designed. The scientists sent a group of 86 volunteers to camp in the peaks of California’s White Mountains.
More than 25 percent of all people who travel to high elevations in North America experience acute altitude sickness, which can include symptoms such as headaches, nausea, vomiting and dizziness.
"You don't want to feel horrible for 15 to 20 percent of your vacation," said Grant Lipman, an emergency medicine physician at Stanford Hospital & Clinics, who wrote the study. "Ibuprofen, an easily accessible over-the-counter drug, could be a way to prevent these symptoms in the millions of people who travel to the mountains every year."
Mountain sickness also can lead to more dangerous symptoms, including brain swelling, if left untreated or unrecognized.
Lipman said that while researchers and physicians know that reduced hyperbaric pressure at higher elevations means fewer oxygen molecules inhaled with every breath, exactly what physiological mechanisms lead to mountain sickness remain unclear.
He said he became curious about ibuprofen’s ability to stave off altitude sickness while working with Stanford’s Wilderness Medicine Fellowship. It was a serendipitous finding that he wanted to explore further. So, along with two colleagues from Stanford’s Emergency Medicine Department, the team set out to test it.
Using social media and targeting triathlon and recreation groups, the trio recruited more than 80 volunteers to participate in one of the world’s most scenic drug trials. The team and the recruits drove to the White Mountains, northeast of Bishop, and spent a night camping under the stars at 4,100 feet. The volunteers were given either 600 mg of ibuprofen or a placebo at 8 a.m.
“We really wanted to test people in a real-world environment,” Lipman said.
The recruits then hiked up to a staging area at 11,700 feet, where they were given a second dose at 2 p.m. They then trekked another three miles, up to 12,570 feet, where they took a third dose at 8 p.m. and went to sleep.
According to the researchers, those who took the drug had fewer symptoms than those taking the placebo.
Lipman and his colleagues are excited about the results and are eager to promote such a readily available and easily accessible drug to ease the symptoms of altitude sickness.
“This will hopefully help those millions of people who go to the mountains for recreation,” he said.
The study was published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine.