a woman reclined on pillows propped up against a wall wearing a sleep mask cradles a sleeping infant in pajamas with a teal Children's Hospital blanket draped over the both of them.

Nocturnal Hypoxia at High Altitude

The long-awaited results for the Ebert Family Clinic study on sleep at altitude were analyzed in collaboration with Colorado Sleep Institute (CSI). Christine Ebert-Santos, MD, MPS and Tara Taylor, FNP organized and conducted the Overnight Pulse Oximeter Study In Healthy Adults at three elevations, with the support of the local mountain community and the American Embassy in La Paz, Bolivia. The purpose of the study was to evaluate nocturnal oxygen saturation levels in populations living at 3800 m (12,467′), 2800 m (9,186′) and 2500 m (8,202′) and determine treatment recommendations for central apnea and hypoxia. Volunteers were recruited by the clinic from residents in the community and current patients, and by the American Embassy nurse practitioner Annette Blakelee. Informed consent was obtained by the clinic staff and providers. Each participant completed a health questionnaire on length of residence at altitude, medical history and possible symptoms related to higher elevations. Blood pressure, height, weight, and BMI were measured and documented at enrollment. Patients enrolled in study sites for routine care had past Hb/Hct added to the questionnaire. The device (pulse oximeter) was dispensed to the participants with instructions for use. The participants wore the device at night during sleep before returning it to the research staff at the clinic. The results were downloaded from a USB device, recorded onto a spreadsheet, and analyzed by a statistician. If the results were concerning for hypoxia, (<89% for over 20% of the study), participants were asked to repeat the test, completely off any substance (e.g., drugs, alcohol). The study also accounted for factors such as years at altitude and percent of life at altitude to assess potential adaptations to the environment and subsequently, changes in oxygen saturation levels. The goal of the study is to inform providers and residents which symptoms are related to altitude or sleep disorders and recommend treatment that will allow them to feel better and be more active, as well as reduce complications from hypoxia, such as pulmonary and systemic hypertension, fatigue, and daytime drowsiness.

Results of the study concluded that years at altitude, percent of life at altitude, gender, and age do not explain the variance of adaptation to altitude, as measured by time <88% oxygen saturation (SpO2) in these data. The only factor statistically significant in adaptation to altitude was body mass index (BMI). This data provides direction for future studies.

P>0.05 is non-significant. This suggests that there is something else besides percent of the life spent at altitude that explains the level of adaptation participants are experiencing.

Overlapping fit lines (colored) and range estimates (gray) means that the groups are not different. Thus gender cannot explain the difference in adaptation responses.

 Tara Taylor FNP had the primary role of reviewing and discussing sleep study results with individuals participating in this study. Tara has worked at the Ebert Family Clinic for over 3 years as a family practitioner, before which she was an intensive care nurse for adults and children for 14 years. She is passionate about sleep issues that occur at high altitude. Tara states that “the most interesting finding was that normal, healthy adults without any comorbidities who are of normal weight and do not have any other medical conditions, had basal oxygen levels <90%, and most had 88-89% basal oxygen. We did see some drops to 85-87% oxygen saturation (SpO2) overnight without any apnea. We checked the length of time spent in different ranges. I found that healthy adults were spending more time below 90% SpO2 than anticipated. We used the index per hour, which gave us a preliminary idea of how many times oxygen increases and decreases.” Based on the results, patients would be notified on any follow up that was needed.

The new Colorado Sleep Institute (CSI) in Frisco will allow patients to receive comprehensive care with more accurate results than can be found at a lower elevation clinic. Dr. Mark Hickey, MD, Board Certified Specialist in Sleep Medicine, and Dr. Ellen Stothard reviewed and interpreted the data collected by Ebert Family Clinic. Dr. Stothard is currently the Research and Development Director at the Colorado Sleep Institute. Her passion lies in conducting sleep research, collecting relevant data, and readily communicating findings, as she believes that good sleep is fundamental for a healthy lifestyle. Dr. Stothard discussed the difference between central versus obstructive sleep apnea and a highly prevalent process called treatment emergent central sleep apnea (TECSA), which is the persistence of central sleep apnea during treatment for obstructive sleep apnea. According to Dr. Stothard, “TECSA is seen when one is treated for obstructive sleep apnea with the continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), causing a disruption to the central sensing mechanism, resulting in central sleep apnea. Following this phenomenon, patients with obstructive sleep apnea believe that they are resistant to treatment when the CPAP doesn’t improve their symptoms.” These patterns are actually central events which can be helped with decreasing pressure of the CPAP and readjusting air flow. Essentially, CPAP settings should be adjusted based on altitude and elevation, as this is a huge factor influencing nocturnal oxygen saturation levels.

Dr. Stothard has worked with numerous patients receiving CPAP treatment including those at lower altitudes. Since opening her clinic at high altitude, the providers at CSI have noticed that patients tend to feel more fatigue, reporting less relief from treatment with CPAP. Symptoms the patients are experiencing require an individualized approach. “Sleep medicine is so unique,” states Dr. Stothard  “and you have to take the time to tailor the treatment and titrate it to perfection to match the patient’s physiology, tolerance for the air, and whether they wear a nasal mask or full-face mask. We spend a lot of time on those specific things in our clinic.”

Dr. Stothard discussed the influence altitude has on conditions such as obesity, explaining that “BMI is a known risk factor for sleep apnea. Someone with a higher BMI will have a different physiology due to its effect on airway collapsibility. Recommendations to reduce sleep apnea are to maintain a healthy weight, which can improve the success of treatment.” Dr. Stothard also spoke about the role of physical therapy in sleep hygiene and how it can help improve sleep, especially in people who have traumatic brain injuries. “Understanding the way sleep facilitates recovery and repair of the body is crucial” and physical therapists can help bridge that gap. Sleep not only allows for the body to restore and re-energize, but also allows for the toxins to be cleansed out from the brain. Moreover, “while we sleep, there is an increase in the interstitial space in the brain allowing the cerebrospinal fluid to flush out chemicals, such as adenosine.” Excess retention of adenosine can cause sleepiness and grogginess acutely, while chronically, it can cause inflammation, fibrosis, and organ damage.

The Overnight Pulse Oximeter Study In Healthy Adults gives us some interesting preliminary information. The CSI and Ebert Family Clinic will be collaborating on future studies to help us understand sleep at altitude in greater depth. For more information on the high prevalence of central apnea at altitude at all ages and the importance of using oxygen at night for residents 50 and older, see previous blog posts on sleep and interviews with local providers Dr. Craig Perrinjaquet and Dr. Peter Lemis.

Arti Kandalam is a second-year physician assistant student at the Red Rocks Community College Physician Assistant Program in Arvada, CO. Arti was born and raised in Sugar Land, TX and lived there until graduating high school. She then moved to Austin, TX to attend the University of Texas in pursuit of her Bachelors in English degree. Shortly after, she obtained her Masters in Biomedical Sciences at the University of Houston in Victoria. She moved back to Sugar Land, TX, where she worked as a Medical Assistant and Scribe at Texas Pain Centers for 4 years. In her free time, Arti enjoys dancing/teaching Bollywood choreography, biking, and hiking.

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