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PT on the Run

Into Thin Air

Published June 25, 2014 2:50 PM by Michael Kelley

I had the pleasure of spending this past weekend out in the beautiful Colorado Rockies. A good friend of mine attempted to run a 50-mile ultra marathon in the mountains (sadly, he had to drop out... the 12,000-plus feet of altitude got to him pretty early in the race). But regardless of his performance, we were able to get in some great hiking and ate a ton of great food (some of the restaurants in these small mountain towns have outrageously good food!). It was one of those trips that was only 4 days long, but felt like 2 weeks. I have to say, being back at work is pretty depressing knowing where I came from this weekend!

Anyway, in honor of my "Rocky Mountain High" this week, I thought I'd discuss a little about the effects of altitude on the human body and how that might relate to PT.

I've been up in the mountains now a half dozen times or so. Usually it doesn't affect me too much, maybe a little headache or something, but that's about it. This trip, however, I really felt the lack of oxygen. On one particular hike we went on, we were up near 12,500 feet and man-oh-man was it tough. My respiratory rate increased dramatically. My heart rate skyrocketed to compensate for the lack of oxygen. My muscles were burning much sooner than they should have been. And for the first time at altitude, I got really dizzy (like can't see or walk straight dizzy).

We weren't moving very fast on this hike and we were taking rest breaks pretty frequently, but the lack of oxygen still really got to me. (Fear not, however, I made it back down the mountain and lived to hike another day... the next day in fact when I was back up a mountain at 12,000 feet!).

So all this has me wondering now, what do PTs at altitude have to do to adjust to the decreased oxygen? Do patients whose pulmonary systems are already compromised need supplemental oxygen more than those at sea level? Are patients at altitude fairly well acclimated so they don't even feel the effects of it? Should we be shipping all of our patients down to sea level so they have increased oxygen levels to breathe in during their rehab? What do you think? Any "alpine" PTs out there have any thoughts?

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