Climbing the Mountain of Health

My brother-in-law, Clarence, has just jetted off to Nepal to try his hand at climbing Everest. Well, he’s only going to the base camp, but that’s said to be no mean feat in itself (more like being mean to your feet). Anyway, in the lead up to this, he’s been reading up on how to avoid altitude sickness. It seems that this can occur at heights >2000m above sea level, and the base camp is up more than double that.

It’s interesting stuff, this whole thing of how the body responds to different levels of air pressure and oxygen. According to Clarence, air at sea level is at a higher pressure than air at high altitudes, which is what causes altitude sickness. I guess that’s why one of most cited treatments for severe altitude sickness involves the use of hyperbaric oxygen therapy (portable equipment, in Australia at least, is available). This can deliver up to 100% pure oxygen at a pressure that’s higher than that at sea level – that is, closer to the ambient pressure at higher altitudes.

What I don’t fully understand is this: given that the concentration of oxygen at high altitude and sea level is be pretty similar (around 21-25%), what role does providing the body with 100% oxygen play in treatment for altitude sickness? There seems to be pretty legit anecdotal evidence to suggest that there’s a clear therapeutic connection; I just haven’t read into it deeply enough to grasp it.

In Melbourne, hyperbaric oxygen therapy devices come in a whole range of forms: multi-person rooms in hospital facilities, portable chambers that people can set up in their homes, and even relaxation-oriented therapeutic settings more akin to massage clinics than medical facilities. The latter two of these, as I understand it, employ a milder version of the treatment, although I’m not totally sure what that means – perhaps there’s less than 100% oxygen in the mix.

Regardless of all of the above, let’s hope that Clarence makes it back with his lungs in one piece. Meanwhile, I’m off to learn more about how breathing works.