Have you thought of what it would be like living in the mountains year-round? Medical professionals find it is important to look at what living at high elevations can do to the human body. One activity heavily affected is sleep. As mentioned in previous blog posts, visitors often have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, and feeling rested in the morning. A recent study published in Physiological Reports measured the effects of sleeping patterns at high elevation. The participants experienced a simulated elevation inside a hyperbaric chamber. This mimicked sleeping at elevations of 3000 meters (9,842 feet) and 4050 meters (13,287 ft) for one night and then sleeping at sea level for several nights to establish a baseline for the research participants. Participants exercised for 3 hours in the hyperbaric chamber allowing researchers to observe how the lower oxygen concentrations affected their ability to perform strenuous tasks. The group that slept in a simulated 4050 meter environment had an increased heart rate that was 28% higher and an oxygen saturation 15% lower than the 3000 meter participants. When comparing sleep itself, the group at 4050 meters had 50% more awakening events throughout each night. This goes along with previous research on this blog that states that people who sleep at high altitude complain of insomnia and frequent awakening when first arriving at high elevation.
These numbers increase even more dramatically when compared to participants at sea level. Related symptoms reported during this study showed the incidence of acute mountain sickness occurred in 10% of the participants at a simulated 3000 meters, increasing to 90% at 4050 meters. As mentioned, the average heart rate increases and oxygen saturation decreases as the elevation increases. The baseline heart rate at sea level was 62 beats per minute, increasing to 80 at 3000 meters and 93 at 4050 meters. Ideally health care providers aim to oxygenate vital organs by keeping the oxygen saturation level between 92-100%. The lower the oxygen level the harder it is to keep organs properly profused. Age, health status, and place of residence are taken into consideration when examining study reports. Oxygen saturation at sea level was 98% decreasing to 92% at 3000 meters and 84% at 4050 meters.
As mentioned in a previous post by Dr. Neale Lange, sleeping at high altitudes can be hard due to the frequent awakenings and nocturnal hypoxia caused by the low oxygen levels at higher elevation. This study reiterates these findings with the results of the average oxygen saturation at 3000 meters being around 92%. Dr. Lange also found that sleep apnea was often more prominent and had more negative effects on the human body in environments that were lower in oxygen. This study agrees with that statement finding that people with sleep apnea had twice the hourly awakenings compared to those at higher elevation that did not have sleep apnea. Dr. Lange also pointed out that the contribution of hypobaric atmosphere to symptoms at altitude as opposed to pure hypoxemia is unknown. Frisco, Colorado is at an elevation of 2800 meters. Ongoing research at Ebert Family Clinic including residents and visitors along with laboratory studies such as this one can guide decisions about interventions and treatment to improve sleep and help us enjoy our time in the mountains.
Figueiredo PS, Sils IV, Staab JE, Fulco CS, Muza SR, Beidleman BA. Acute mountain sickness and sleep disturbances differentially influence cognition and mood during rapid ascent to 3000 and 4050 m. Physiological Reports. 2022;10(3). doi:10.14814/phy2.15175
Blog post: HOW DO YOU DEFINE A GOOD NIGHT’S SLEEP?:AN INTRODUCTION TO THE SLEEPIMAGE RING, AN INTERVIEW WITH DR. NEALE LANGE
Casey Weibel is a 2nd year student at Drexel University, born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He went to Gannon University for his undergrad and got a degree in biology. Before PA school, Casey was an EMT. He enjoys hiking and kayaking and is a big sports fan.
Wild animals, storms, avalanches, cold, high altitude pulmonary edema or cerebral edema, falls, fires and injuries are the most common dangers in the mountains. I’ve climbed 19 different mountains in Colorado over 14,000′, and some of them more than once, making for 28 successful ascents. But I called Summit County Search and Rescue Saturday for something I was not expecting: deep wet snow that trapped me less than 2 miles from the trailhead.
It was a bright, warm day — I had even left my hand warmers at home. My plan was to hike from Miners Creek trailhead in Frisco to Gold Hill Trailhead north of Breckenridge which is about a 6- or 7-mile trip one way. I had hiked from both ends in previous weeks and saw the turn-off had snow and no tracks. I attached my snowshoes to my backpack with plans to turn up towards Gold Hill if there were tracks, and there were.
After 4 miles I was out of the forest on top with gorgeous 360˚ views of mountains. I no longer saw the trail markers or tracks so set out across the open space with my snowshoes sinking into the snow every 10 to 20 feet. The trail maps and GPS on my phone were sketchy, only showing I was very near the Colorado Trail. I turned down a logging road to get out of the wind thinking the snow would be packed. I could see several open areas that I thought would take me to the familiar trails to Gold Hill.
After an hour sinking into deep snow I noticed I had only one snowshoe. I backtracked 100 feet following the tracks to find it, dug at several spots where I had sunk the deepest but never found it. I went back towards the Colorado Trail but could not progress, having to dig my boot out of deep snow several times. I tried to backtrack in my footsteps but couldn’t get far. I had now covered a mile in an hour and a half, my phone showing I was only 48 minutes from the Gold Hill trailhead.
So I called 911, thinking they could drive a snowmobile up to get me. Bad news: the vehicle would just sink the same way I was. The 911 operator knew me and the Summit County Search & Rescue mission coordinator Mark Svenson was in touch several times as I waited from 3:17 until about 6 pm when the crew arrived with skis and extra snowshoes. My Blue Heeler Isa and I stayed within one foot of a small pine tree where we found firm footing after rolling through the deep, soft snow. Luckily the sun kept us warm until 5 pm, and I had food and water. My gloves and boots were soaked so my feet were very cold and I tried to keep Isa lying over my legs or feet. I had a plastic rain shield extension that I could pull out and sit on in a pocket of the backpack that one of my students had gifted me.
The rescuers had water, snacks, dry socks, dry gloves, gators and snowshoes. They had packed down the trail but there were still times we post-holed on the way down. We arrived at the rescue vehicle as darkness fell. Special Operations Sheriff SJ Hamit waited with Mark and other SCSR staff to welcome us. One of the rescuers told me how happy he was that I was still smiling when they arrived!
What did I learn? Stay out of deep, wet snow even if it means going back the long way. Bring extra socks and gloves. Buy gators.
I was not afraid because I knew they were coming before dark. I do feel exhilarated that I was able to do such a challenging hike without any pain or blisters, that my knees were strong enough to extract my feet from the deep snow so many times, and that Isa was with me to warn if any animals were near and announce when the rescuers arrived.
Christine Ebert-Santos, MD, MPS is the founding physician and president of Ebert Family Clinic in Frisco, Colorado, where she leads high altitude research in addition to running a full-time family practice. Isa is a two-year-old blue heeler and Dr. Chris’s familiar and guardian angel.
Acute Altitude Illness affects about 7.4% of travelers to mountain resort areas, including Frisco, Colorado which sits at an altitude of about 2800 meters. Dr. Kendrick Adnan, MD, MSPH is an emergency medicine physician associated with Vail Health. Dr. Adnan often sees visitors to Vail and other popular ski and vacation areas in Summit County that are experiencing Acute Altitude Illness. I sat down with Dr. Adnan, and we discussed the treatment of Acute Altitude Illness as well as signs, symptoms, risk factors, and prevention of Acute Altitude Illness.
What causes Acute Altitude Illness?
Acute Altitude Illness develops when the body responds to hypoxia, a low level of oxygen in the blood. Areas of high altitude have a lower concentration of oxygen in the air than lower altitudes, which makes your body work harder to put oxygen in your blood. Your body responds to the lower oxygen concentration by increasing how often and how deeply you breathe. This causes a decrease in carbon dioxide and increase in tpH in the blood. Your heart, lungs, blood vessels, and kidneys all respond to the low pH in your blood, which can cause the signs and symptoms of Acute Altitude Illness.
Some people will experience severe forms of Acute Altitude Illness called High-Altitude Pulmonary Edema or High-Altitude Cerebral Edema. These are life-threatening conditions that can cause death in both adults and children if not treated promptly by a medical professional.
What are the signs and symptoms of Acute Altitude Illness in adults?
Shortness of breath on exertion
Decreased exercise tolerance
What are the signs and symptoms of Acute Altitude Illness in children?
Pale or blue-tinged skin
Sleeping too much or too little
What is the treatment for Acute Altitude Illness (AAI)?
The best treatment for AAI is supplemental oxygen through a nasal cannula and descent to a lower elevation. You will need to visit a healthcare provider, clinic, or hospital to get supplemental oxygen if your oxygen level drops below 89%. Visitors to high-altitude areas may be hesitant to abandon their vacation plans in order to descend to a lower altitude. A healthcare provider may be able to prescribe medications to help you recover from AAI. However, if your low oxygen level does not improve with supplemental oxygen and medication, it is important to descend to an area of lower altitude.
Studies show that acetazolamide, dexamethasone, and tadalafil are medications that can potentially treat Acute Altitude Illness and/or High-Altitude Pulmonary Edema. A healthcare provider may prescribe these medications for you if appropriate.
What increases the chance that I will experience Acute Altitude Illness?
Traveling by airplane from low altitude to high altitude.
Being a resident of low altitude
Past episode of Acute Altitude Illness
Physical exertion at high altitude, especially in colder temperatures
What can be done to prevent Acute Altitude Illness and High-Altitude Pulmonary Edema?
A slower ascent will decrease your risk of AAI. Dr. Adnan recommends spending the night in Denver after air travel if you are planning to visit a high-altitude area.
Avoid strenuous exercise like skiing, hiking, and mountain biking for 48-72 hours after arrival to a high-altitude area.
Buy a pulse oximeter to check your oxygen level. A level above 89% is normal at high-altitude and does not require treatment.
Ask your healthcare provider about taking Diamox (acetazolamide) for 2-3 days before you arrive at a high-altitude destination. You will need a prescription for this medication.
Avoid medications that decrease your respiratory rate like opiates, sleeping medications, benzodiazepines, and barbiturates.
Schafermeyer, R. W. DynaMed. Acute Altitude Illnesses. EBSCO Information Services. https://www.dynamed.com/condition/acute-altitude-illnesses. Accessed November 19, 2021. Simancas-Racines D, Arevalo-Rodriguez I, Osorio D, Franco JVA, Xu Y, Hidalgo R. Interventions for treating acute high altitude illness. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2018, Issue 6. Art. No.: CD009567. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD009567.pub2. Accessed 03 November 2021.
Sasha Scott is a physician assistant student at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA. She is originally from Indianapolis, IN and attended Purdue University for undergrad. Sasha enjoys running, cross stitching, cooking, and exploring Philadelphia when she is not studying!
Changes in altitude have many effects on the physiology of the human body and even metabolism. Some people exposed to high altitude develop acute or chronic mountain sickness due to hypoxia with a spectrum of symptoms including neurocognitive decline of performance and impacting brain function. Head truma at altitude is more likely to lead to brain injury or concussion than those at low altitude.
Imaging with PET/CT using FDG-18 has been used to measure brain metabolism in both human and mice subjects. This type of imaging scans the accumulation of a glucose analog in tissue, specifically the brain in this case. This allows determination of which regions have high or low uptake in metabolism in comparison to a brain at baseline at sea level.
In 2017, mice were studied by being placed in a hypobaric chamber to stimulate hypoxic conditions similar at 5000 meters. Conditions were placed to minimize brown adipose tissue uptake and imaging was performed 45 minutes after an estimated 0.5 mCi FDG injection. After appropriate processing, the results showed an increase in glucose metabolism in the cerebellum and medulla of the mice exposed to high altitude conditions compared to those at baseline. Additionally, certain cortical regions had lower metabolism than baseline mice, and lower cardiac uptake as well. It is thought that the brain’s acclimation response to high altitude.
Another study using mice as subjects compared brain metabolism at high altitude after a traumatic brain injury (TBI) to determine if hypoxia alters glucose uptake. A total of 32 mice were imaged at sea level (baseline) and again after 12 weeks exposure at 5000m (hypobaric stimulation), and again after a repetitive closed injury. An SUV (standard uptake value) was compared in each set of images to determine a change in glucose metabolism.
This study showed a significant increase in FDG uptake in the medulla, cerebellum, and pons, and a decreased uptake in the corpus callosum, cortex, midbrain, and thalamus. A TBI affects glucose metabolism in the brain by decreasing cortical uptake in both high altitude and sea level. This study showed that high altitude affects the brain by making it more susceptible to repeated concussions than mice at sea level.
A third study employed PET/CT imaging to assess regional cerebral glucose metabolism rates in six US Marines before and after a rigorous training period from sea level to high altitude conditions ranging from 10,000-20,000 ft. It was thought that other conditions would be relatively stable as the military has similar regimens for their members. After comparing imaging performed at baseline sea level and after two months of high-altitude exposure, it was clear that brain metabolism changed. There was a decrease in glucose metabolism in three frontal regions, left occipital, and right thalamus. Right and left cerebellum showed an increase in glucose uptake and metabolism.
The data from these three studies clearly show high altitude exposure with hypoxia changes the way our brain tissue metabolism functions. Studies show Sherpas, native to the Himalayas are the most well adapted high-altitude humans. Their brain metabolism is the same of that of “low-landers”. Conversely, the Quechuas who are native to the Andes of South America still show small amounts of hypometabolism in their brain. As mentioned previously, it is unknown how long it takes for humans to fully acclimate regarding brain metabolism.
These studies indicate the need for more research regarding brain metabolism and function. Glucose metabolism is crucial for proper functioning of the brain, its neurons, and other regulatory functions. This brings into question what type of impact high altitude may have on the cognitive functions of the brain in people who move or even live at high altitude. Additionally, the fact that the human brain is more prone to injury or developing a concussion, safety should be a consideration for those involved in high impact sports at high altitude.
1. Jaiswal S, Cramer N, Scott J, Meyer C, Xu X, Whiting K, Hoy A, Galdzicki Z, Dardzinski B. [18F] FDG PET to study the effect of simulated high altitude on regional brain activity in mice. Journal of Nuclear Medicine May 2017, 58 (supplement 1) 1246. https://jnm.snmjournals.org/content/58/supplement_1/1246
2. Jaiswal S, Knutsen A, Pan H, Cramer N, Xu X, Dardzinski B, Galdzicki Z, Allison N, Haight T. FDG PET study showing the effect of high altitude and traumatic brain injury on regional glucose uptake in mice. Journal of Nuclear Medicine May 2019, 60 (supplement 1) 180. https://jnm.snmjournals.org/content/60/supplement_1/180
3. Hochachka PW, Clark CM, Matheson GO, et al. Effects on regional brain metabolism of high-altitude hypoxia: a study of six US marines. Am J Physiol. 1999;277(1):R314-R319. doi:10.1152/ajpregu.1999.277.1.R314. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10409288/
Roberta Grabocka is a second-year physician assistant student at Red Rocks Community College’s PA Program in Arvada, Colorado. Roberta attended Stony Brook University in Long Island, NY for her degree in Health Science and received a post-baccalaureate degree in Nuclear Medicine Technology. She practiced for 3 years as a Nuclear Medicine Technologist in multiple hospitals. This included working in oncological, cardiac, and general nuclear settings performing a variety of studies from PET/CTs, myocardial perfusion imaging, HIDAs, V/Qs, etc. Roberta decided to pursue a career as a Physician Assistant to expand her scope of practice and further her medical knowledge. In her free time, she likes to explore local culture and travel.
Prior to COVID-19, I would hike the beautiful mountains of Colorado known as 14ers, a name given to these mountains for being over 14,000 ft. I, like most high-altitude travelers faced the more common concerns associated with hiking such as acute mountain sickness (AMS), high altitude cerebral edema (HACE), and high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE). With the increase in high-altitude travel, I wondered if there are any new precautions that we should consider before resuming the activities that we love.
The purpose of this article is to highlight the recommendations for patients who wish to return to high-altitude travel after a COVID infection. Not everyone needs an evaluation after a COVID infection. The recommendations noted in this article are based on the duration and severity of the illness of each individual person.
So, who should receive an evaluation before high-altitude travel?
Individuals with symptoms after 2 weeks of a positive COVID-19 test without hospitalization,
Individuals with symptoms after 2 weeks after hospital discharge,
Anyone who required care in the intensive care unit (ICU), and
Anyone who developed myocarditis or thromboembolic events. The recommendations are to undergo pulse oximetry at rest and with activity, spirometry, lung volumes, and diffusion capacity for carbon monoxide(DLCO), chest imaging, electrocardiography (EKG), B-type natriuretic peptide, high sensitivity cardiac troponin (hsTn), and echocardiography.
It is expected that people with lower oxygen levels (hypoxemia) at rest or with exertion in lower elevations will experience greater hypoxemia with ascent to high altitude. It has been shown that ascent to high altitude causes a decrease in barometric pressure leading to a decrease in ambient and inspired partial pressure of oxygen. The decrease in partial pressure of oxygen in alveoli (PaO2) will trigger vasoconstriction of pulmonary arterioles that slows the rate of oxygen diffusion and activates chemoreceptors that increase minute ventilation from hypoxia. However, it is still unclear whether people with low oxygen levels at low elevations are at greater risk for acute altitude illness after ascent. The recommendation is to monitor pulse oximetry after arrival of high altitude.
Individuals with abnormal lung function tests don’t have to avoid high altitude travel as previous studies have shown that patients with COPD with abnormal lung functions tolerate exposure. Furthermore, in people with mild to severe COVID-19 symptoms, the lung mechanic markers such as forced expiratory volume (FEV1), forced vital capacity (FVC) and total lung capacity (TLC) normalize in up to 150 days of infection. However, if individuals have severe limitations with exercise capacity, they should monitor their oxygen levels with pulse oximetry after ascent. Reduction in exercise capacity is possible after COVID infection and depends on the severity of the illness. Blokland et al., 2020 has shown that previously intubated individuals had a median VO2 max of 15ml/kg per min (average male 35 to 40 and average female 27 and 30), roughly 57% predicted immediately after hospitalization.
In acute hypoxia, the heart rate increases, which leads to an increase in cardiac output. Individuals with reduced ventricular function from COVID infection do not have to avoid travel. Previous research has shown that individuals with heart failure can tolerate exercise with hypoxia. Moreover, data has shown that individuals with COVID infection maintain preserved left ventricular function and only 3% show a reduced ejection fraction. Individuals with abnormal EKG rhythms and ischemia should be referred to cardiology. If high sensitivity troponin was abnormally elevated, this would require evaluation for myocarditis with a cardiac MRI. Knight et al., (2020), found that 45% of patients with unexplained elevations of high-sensitivity troponin were found to have myocarditis during hospitalization. It is still unclear how long these abnormalities will last and how it will affect people.
A concerning finding on ECHO is pulmonary hypertension, as previous research has shown an increased risk in developing HAPE. A study reported that 10% of patients hospitalized for COVID without mechanical ventilation had right ventricular dysfunction for over 2 months. Several studies reported that 7-10% of individuals may have pulmonary hypertension after COVID infection. A vasodilating drug such as nifedipine can be given prophylactically if pulmonary hypertension is unrelated to left heart dysfunction but nifedipine can worsen hypoxemia.
The recommendation for patients who developed myocarditis from a COVID infection is to have an ECHO, Holter monitor, and exercise EKG 3-6 months after illness. Travel can resume after a normal ECHO, no arrhythmias on exercise EKG, and after inflammatory markers (ESR and/or CRP) have normalized. Previous studies suspected that areas with low atmospheric pressures (e.g., high-altitude) that induce hypoxia have increased risk for clot formation. However, this suspicion has never been firmly established; therefore there is no reason to believe that high-altitude will increase the risk for clot formation in individuals who developed an arterial or venous clot from COVID infection.
A few things to consider before planning a high-altitude excursion includes planning to visit areas with access to medical resources or the ability to descend rapidly. If you are new to high altitude, it is recommended to slow the ascent rate. Traveling to high elevations (>4000m) should be avoided until tolerance has developed with moderate elevations (2000-3000m). A more gradual return to physical activity at high altitude is recommended rather than immediate resumption of heavy exertion. As the pandemic subsides and with increase in mountain travel, more research will develop that can better address these risks.
Good news! The Ebert Family Clinic in Frisco, CO provides pulse oximeters for free. So, make sure to visit and grab your pulse oximeter before your next ascent.
Quick Summary of Recommendations
Individuals who require evaluation prior to high-altitude travel:
Individuals who have symptoms after 2 weeks of a positive COVID-19 test without hospitalization
Individuals who have symptoms after 2 weeks after hospital discharge
Any patient who required care in the intensive care unit (ICU)
Any patient who developed myocarditis or thromboembolic events
General recommendations for anyone before high-altitude travel:
Monitor pulse oximetry after arrival of high altitude, and access care or descend if symptoms worsen.
Rest and avoid high-altitude travel for at least 2 weeks after a positive test, and consider a gradually return to physical activity at higher altitudes.
All individuals planning high-altitude travel should be counseled on how to recognize, prevent, and treat the primary forms of acute altitude illness (AMS, HACE, and HAPE)
Limit the extent of planned exertion after ascent and, instead, engage in graded increases in activity that allow the individual to assess performance and avoid overextending themselves.
Reasons to forgo high-altitude travel:
Severely elevated pulmonary artery pressures may be a reason to forego high-altitude travel altogether.
High-altitude travel should likely be avoided while active inflammation is present in myocarditis.
Patients who experienced arterial thromboembolic events due to COVID-19, (e.g. myocardial infarction or stroke) should defer return to high altitude for several months after that event or any associated revascularization procedures.
Christensen CC, Ryg M, Refvem OK, Skjønsberg OH. Development of severe hypoxaemia in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease patients at 2,438 m (8,000 ft) altitude. Eur Respir J. 2000 Apr;15(4):635-9. doi: 10.1183/09031936.00.15463500. PMID: 10780752.
Blokland IJ, Ilbrink S, Houdijk H, Dijkstra JW, van Bennekom CAM, Fickert R, de Lijster R, Groot FP. Inspanningscapaciteit na beademing vanwege covid-19 [Exercise capacity after mechanical ventilation because of COVID-19: Cardiopulmonary exercise tests in clinical rehabilitation]. Ned Tijdschr Geneeskd. 2020 Oct 29;164:D5253. Dutch. PMID: 33331718.
Jesse Santana is a second-year PA student at Red Rocks Community College in Denver, Colorado. He grew up in Colorado Springs, CO and attended the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs where he earned a bachelor’s in Biology and Psychology. Jesse worked as a Certified Nursing Assistant for two years before pursuing a Master’s in Biomedical Sciences at Regis University in Denver. Shortly after, he coordinated clinical trials in endocrinology and weight loss as a Clinical Research Coordinator at University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. He enjoys hiking Colorado’s 14ers, spending time with family and friends, and camping.
As I arrived in Denver (5280′), and ultimately Frisco, CO (9000′), the first physical symptom I noticed from the high-altitude environment was dyspnea on exertion. On flat ground I didn’t feel any different than at home in New Jersey, but as soon as I began to climb stairs or hike the beautiful trails in the area, I quickly became winded. I had already read about the common symptoms of high-altitude acclimation and knew this was normal and was on the lookout for headache, nausea, or dizziness. I noticed my resting heart rate was elevated and told myself this was also normal because the low-oxygen environment required my heart to work harder to keep my pulse oxygen levels up. I already owned a pulse oximeter that I had bought during my time working with COVID patients in the Emergency Room on a previous rotation. I checked that within my first week and was initially disappointed that it was averaging around 91%, but soon found out this was also normal, especially since I was still acclimating. My Apple watch trended data over time on my heart rate and I noticed a tremendous difference in my resting HR compared to home.
I landed on May 2nd, 2021 and I think the graphs above make that quite evident. My walking HR was even more noticeably elevated. “The initial cardiovascular response to altitude is characterized by an increase in cardiac output with tachycardia … after a few days of acclimatization, cardiac output returns to normal, but heart rate remains increased”1
My persistently elevated heart rate caused me to feel anxious when hiking or doing other physical activity, and that anxiety in turn raised my heart rate even more. I had experienced PVC’s in the past which occurred only a few times a month, nowhere near the threshold for treatment, and had been reassured they were totally benign. On a hike during my first week in Colorado I experienced a few of these “skipped beats” followed by rapid heart rate and had to talk myself down from the anxiety it caused. This is what prompted me to research the effect of altitude on anxiety. “Adrenergic centers in the medulla are activated in acute hypoxia and augment the adrenergic drive to the organs.”2 It seems as though the body’s compensatory mechanisms to physiological changes can be accompanied by unwanted mental health disturbances. This is especially true for people in the early stages of shifting from low altitude to high altitude. During the adjustment period individuals are most susceptible to new-onset anxiety disorders, but even those living long-term at high altitude are at increased risk of psychiatric ailments.4 In fact, living in high-altitude environments has been associated with serious mental health implications not limited to anxiety disorders, including depression and increased suicidality.4 This has been evidenced by statistically significant changes in PHQ-9 Total Score, PHQ-9 suicidal ideation, and GAD-7 Total Score.4
Sleep disturbances have often been faulted for these increases in anxiety and depression at high altitude, and although I didn’t have any formal sleep studies done while in Colorado, I felt well-rested and didn’t notice a change in my sleep at altitude.3 One hypothesis that could explain these findings and my personal experience, is that hypoxia has an inverse relationship with serotonin.4 Because oxygen is a requirement for the creation of serotonin, living somewhere with decreased oxygen could lead to deficiency. Serotonin has an expansive role in the human body, playing a role in cognition, sleep, mood, digestion and other crucial aspects of life. Low levels of this neurotransmitter have been implicated as a cause for depression and accordingly many of our best antidepressant medications like SSRI’s and SNRI’s work on these pathways. There is also a “chicken or the egg?” argument to be made. Is the anxiety brought on due to hypoxia which in turn causes somatic symptoms like palpitations, shortness of breath, and presyncope; or do these symptoms caused by hypoxia come first, resulting in anxiety and panic attacks? For example, hyperventilation, a well-known provocative factor of panic attacks, is also a response to altitude changes. Hypoxia leads to hypocapnia, which can ultimately lead to respiratory alkalosis.5 Although there are multiple hypotheses for these mental health changes, there does seem to be an agreement in the literature that they do exist.
Luckily, in my experience, my body adjusted over the span of a few weeks. My HR began to trend down towards my normal resting rate in the 70’s and my anxiety levels also dropped. I started doing more challenging hikes, traveling and enjoying the many natural wonders Colorado has to offer. Just being in amazing places like Rocky Mountain National Park and the San Isabel National Forest had a profound impact on my mood as I soaked in the scenery. I took pictures, breathed fresh mountain air and spotted wildlife, which all served to distract me from my worries. The mood-altering benefits of exercise also likely played a role in my increasing happiness. I grew to love the state and as soon as I felt fully adjusted, it was time to go back to New Jersey. Back to sea-level, outrageous humidity and hotter weather.
Naeije R. Physiological adaptation of the cardiovascular system to high altitude. Prog Cardiovasc Dis. 2010 May-Jun;52(6):456-66. doi: 10.1016/j.pcad.2010.03.004. PMID: 20417339.
Richalet JP. Physiological and Clinical Implications of Adrenergic Pathways at High Altitude. Adv Exp Med Biol. 2016;903:343-56. doi: 10.1007/978-1-4899-7678-9_23. PMID: 27343107.
Bian SZ, Zhang L, Jin J, Zhang JH, Li QN, Yu J, Chen JF, Yu SY, Zhao XH, Qin J, Huang L. The onset of sleep disturbances and their associations with anxiety after acute high-altitude exposure at 3700 m. Transl Psychiatry. 2019 Jul 22;9(1):175. doi: 10.1038/s41398-019-0510-x. PMID: 31332159; PMCID: PMC6646382.
Kious BM, Bakian A, Zhao J, Mickey B, Guille C, Renshaw P, Sen S. Altitude and risk of depression and anxiety: findings from the intern health study. Int Rev Psychiatry. 2019 Nov-Dec;31(7-8):637-645. doi: 10.1080/09540261.2019.1586324. Epub 2019 May 14. PMID: 31084447.
Roth WT, Gomolla A, Meuret AE, Alpers GW, Handke EM, Wilhelm FH. High altitudes, anxiety, and panic attacks: is there a relationship? Depress Anxiety. 2002;16(2):51-8. doi: 10.1002/da.10059. PMID: 12219335.
Joseph Albanese is a second-year physician associate (PA) student attending Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He grew up in Hillsborough, NJ. He got his BA from The Pennsylvania State University as a double major in Psychology and Film Studies. Prior to PA school he worked as a mental health associate in an inpatient psychiatry setting with actively suicidal and homicidal patients. The acuity of the unit he worked on made him appreciate the benefits of talk-therapy, but also the crucial role of medicine in many cases. This led him to apply to PA school. In his free time Joe loves to travel (favorite places include Japan, Iceland, Glacier National Park, and now Colorado). He also enjoys photography, playing sports, and eating new foods.
With summer just around the corner, more people will be hitting the mountains for some high altitude hikes and 14ers. There have been numerous anecdotal findings of mountaineers with changes to their fingernails after ascending the world’s tallest peaks, with the most common abnormalities being Mees’ lines, Muehrcke’s lines, and Beau’s lines. While the peaks in Colorado do not compare to those of the Himalayas, there is always a chance, albeit very low, that you may notice some changes to your nails after a high altitude expedition.
Both Mees’ lines and Muehrcke’s lines are types of leukonychia, which means “white nails”. Mees’ lines present as a single horizontal white band, sometimes multiple, located in the nail plate and are non-blanching. Throughout history, Mees’ lines have been associated with drug toxicity, such as from arsenic or thallium.4 Additionally, there are many systemic diseases that have been associated with Mees’ lines in which the body is experiencing high amounts of stress, such as with myocardial infarction, sickle cell crisis, and tuberculosis.4
One case report, “Mees’ lines in high altitude mountaineering”, by Avinash Aujayeb details how a 27-year old man developed Mees’ lines after he traversed high altitudes in the Pakistani Karakorum range, attempting to scale a summit of 7031 meters.1 He acclimated to altitude at a camp located at 4000 meters, and stayed for a total of 21 days. No medications were used for acclimatization. In his attempt to reach the summit, he became extremely fatigued and hypothermic, and turned around at 6900 meters. Upon return to sea level, he lost about 17 pounds of weight. Six weeks after his expedition, he developed non-blanching horizontal white lines on his nails, consistent with Mees’ lines. The lines eventually moved distally and completely disappeared. While the paper does not go on to hypothesize the cause of this man’s development of Mees’ lines, it seems reasonable that they appeared due to the stress the man endured as evidenced by his need to turn around early from fatigue and hypothermia, and likely hypoxia given the extreme altitude.
Muehrcke’s lines present as a pair of horizontal white bands located in the nailbed, the skin beneath the nail plate, making them blanchable (unlike Mee’s lines which are located within the nail itself). Muehrcke’s lines usually present on the 2nd, 3rd and 4th fingers, and typically spare the thumb. Historically, these lines are most associated with hypoalbuminemia as seen in a protein-losing condition of the kidney called nephrotic syndrome.4 They have also been found in disease states of systemic immunosuppression, such as in HIV, where the metabolism of the body is stressed and has decreased ability to make proteins. 4
The discovery of Muehrcke’s lines was first published in the British Medical Journal in 1956 by Robert C. Muehrcke.4 In the paper, he details a study in which he compared 750 adult patients and healthy volunteers who had normal serum albumin against 65 patients known to have chronic hypoalbuminemia. He saw that the pair of white horizontal lines were only in those with the chronic hypoalbuminemia, most specifically those with a serum albumin below 2.2 g/dL.4 Once these patients were treated and their albumin concentrations increased, the lines disappeared after a few weeks. He thought the findings suggested that Muehrcke’s lines were from an albumin deficiency due to poor nutrition.
In a letter to the editor of High Altitude Medicine and Biology, authors Windsor, Hart, and Rodway describe the presence of Muehrcke’s lines on Mount Everest after a 38 year old with no significant medical history noticed their appearance a few weeks after he had returned to sea level.3 There were two parallel horizontal lines under the nails of his 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th digits, sparing the overlying nail. They believe the development of these nail findings were indeed from hypoalbuminemia , however do not believe it was from a nutritional deficiency as Muehrcke first described, because the climber had been healthy throughout his expedition and he maintained good nutrition.3 They attribute the findings to peripheral edema, which is a common finding in high altitude mountaineers. With this edema, fluid levels in the tissues increase. The authors believe this may have inhibited the growth of the nailbed, which then resumed with return to sea level.
Another nail finding from high altitude mountaineering is called Beau’s lines, which are an indented groove across the span of the nail horizontally, beginning at the base of the lunula. The lines result when nail formation is temporarily halted during episodes of stress, and usually present several weeks after the stressful incident.2 They are generally caused by local trauma to the nail, extreme temperatures, and toxicity from chemotherapy.4
There was a prospective study completed by authors Bellis and Nickol in High Altitude Medicine and Biology where the study participants were completing a research expedition in eastern Nepal in April and May of 2003.2 The maximum altitude reached varied from 5,142 to 6,476 meters and the length of stay of each individual also varied. The study found Beau’s lines developed in 1 out of 56 participants at 4 weeks, however by 8 weeks, 17 out of the 52 (or 33%) developed Beau’s lines. The authors hypothesized that the changes were possibly due to the hypoxic as well as hypobaric environment which could diminish the activity of the nail matrix. However, they did acknowledge the fact that there were other factors that could have resulted in the Beau’s lines, such as extreme cold conditions and possible injuries to the fingers due to the nature of the work of the researchers. No participants reported frostbite or any damage to the hand, however at night temperatures dropped as low as negative 20 degrees Celsius.
These nail abnormaltities are less likely to be found during expeditions within the United States unless hiking in Alaska, which has Denali, the tallest peak in the US at 20,310 meters. Outside of Alaska, the tallest peak is Mount Whitney in California, which pales in comparison at 14,505 meters. Most of the case reports completed on these nail findings were from several week-long expeditions in the Himalayas. However, condition you may already be aware of is clubbing of the fingers. This presents as a bulbous enlargement of the fingertips caused by chronic hypoxia. During my five-week visit here, I have anecdotally heard from two different Summit County residents that they have many healthy and young friends with clubbed fingers. Unfortunately, I was unable to find any research on the prevalence of clubbed fingers among individuals living at high elevations, but I believe it is something that deserves to be looked into deeper.
Aujayeb, A. (2019). Mees’ lines in high altitude mountaineering. BMJ Case Reports, 12(3), 1. doi:10.1136/bcr-2019-229644
Bellis, F., & Nickol, A. (2005). Everest Nails: A prospective study on the incidence OF Beau’s lines after time spent at high altitude. High Altitude Medicine & Biology, 6(2), 178-180. doi:10.1089/ham.2005.6.178
Windsor, J. S., Hart, N., & Rodway, G. W. (2009). Muehrcke’s lines on Mt. Everest. High Altitude Medicine & Biology,10(1), 87-88. doi:10.1089/ham.2008.1079
Zaiac, M. N., & Walker, A. (2013). Nail abnormalities associated with systemic pathologies. Clinics in Dermatology,31(5), 627-649. doi:10.1016/j.clindermatol.2013.06.018
Makenna Schmidgall is a second-year physician assistant student at the Midwestern University Physician Assistant Program in Glendale, Arizona. She grew up in Gilbert, AZ, but left her desert home to attend New York University in the Big Apple where she earned a bachelor’s degree in Global Public Health/Biology. During her junior year of college, she began working as an ER scribe in multiple emergency departments of the Mount Sinai Health System in New York, NY. She enjoys gardening, hiking and playing with her new Labrador retriever puppy “Piper”.
According to recent research, nearly thirty million individuals in the United states have been diagnosed with diabetes. Due to this higher rate of prevalence, more people are aware of the basic information surrounding a diabetic diagnosis. However, there are common misconceptions surrounding the average diabetic patient, with most information focused on the more common form of diabetes, type 2. Although the majority of diabetic patients in the United states do have type 2 diabetes, an estimated 5 to 10% of people with diabetes actually have type 1. Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease in which the body’s own immune system destroys the cells in the pancreas that make insulin. Insulin is a very important hormone that enables sugar to enter the bloodstream in order for it to be used by the cells for energy, as well as stored for later use. Unlike type 2 diabetes, there is no cure for type 1 diabetes and the treatment options are limited; the only management for this form of diabetes is insulin therapy. The most common therapeutic regimens for type 1 diabetes includes constant monitoring of blood sugars using a glucometer or continuous glucose device. These devices combined with either syringes, preloaded insulin pens, and/or an insulin pump are the means to survival for type 1 diabetics. However, there have been many advancements in the ways physicians are able to help their type 1 diabetics control and manage their disease. Because of this, type 1 diabetics are able to live their lives with far less complications. When desired, type 1 diabetics are able to compete at high levels of activity and complete amazing feats, such as wilderness activities.
It is inspiring to know how type 1 diabetics are still able to perform in high intensity activities such as ultramarathons, ironmen/ironwomen, as well as professional sports, to name a few. However, with such strenuous activity, it is important to note that diabetes control is more challenging. Of note, it cannot be stressed enough, that baseline diabetic control is already challenging in itself. By adding the addition of a strenuous environment and activity, diabetes control becomes more difficult as it is multifactorial.
To help address this issue, the Wilderness Medical Society (WMS) worked to form clinical practice guidelines for wilderness athletes with diabetes. The WMS gathered a group of experts in wilderness medicine endocrinology, primary care, and emergency medicine to compose these guidelines. These guidelines are outlined for both type 1 and 2 diabetics who participate in mild-vigorous intensity events in wilderness environment with reduced medical access and altitudes greater than or equal to 8250ft; the objective to help individuals with diabetes better plan and execute their wilderness goals. The foundation summarizes their recommendations into pre-trip preparation, including a list of essential items to bring when on your wilderness trip, potential effects of high altitude on blood glucose control and diabetes management, and an organized algorithm to treat hyperglycemia and ketosis in the backcountry.
Effects of High Altitude on Diabetes Management:
At baseline, the various types of exercise activities are broken into aerobic, anaerobic, and high intensity exercise. Each type of exercise utilizes the energy stored in our bodies, in the form of sugar. In a healthy person without any comorbidities, during aerobic activities, glucose uptake into the large muscle groups is increased due to the increase in energy expenditure. To keep glucose higher during this form of exercise, insulin secretion is reduced. Simultaneously, other hormones such as adrenaline, cortisol, and glucagon are released into the system to promote further glucose release from processes such as gluconeogenesis and glycogenolysis.
Again, the body is utilizing its resource of glucose to move to the larger muscle groups to keep them moving and active. During anerobic and high intensity exercise, the same process occurs, but since these forms of exercise tend to be in short bursts, insulin levels tend to rise particularly in the post workout period. This helps to diminish the effects of the counterregulatory hormones and keep blood sugar levels stable. If the athlete is unable to properly regulate insulin secretions during these various forms of exercise, then it is likely that he/she will experience frequent episodes of hyperglycemia. Also, due to the increase in insulin sensitivity in muscles post workouts lasting >60 min, hypoglycemia can also ensue.
In general, the WMS and other research demonstrates brief episodes of high intensity exercise are linked to hyperglycemia for diabetics. On the other hand, longer duration aerobic exercise will cause hypoglycemia. Unfortunately, due to the complex intricacies of glycemic control during exercise, in addition to the individuality of each patient and the multiple variables involved in each wilderness expedition (temperature, altitude, duration, etc.), the definitive guidance for adjustment of daily insulin continues to need refinement. This is why the WMS recommends extensive pre-trip planning with the various tools, research, and supplies that will be needed when planning any form of wilderness adventure.
Like all endeavors, preparation is key in order to be better equipped to deal with the majority of future scenarios. Planning is especially important when going on a wilderness expedition. Preparation becomes even more important with the diagnosis of diabetes. The WMS outlines the specific recommendations that should be included as a diabetic wilderness athlete. For example, pre-trip prep should generally include: (1) a medical screening, (2) research of the endeavor and how it may affect glucose management, and lastly (3) essential diabetes-specific medical supplies and backups.
Additionally, according to the American diabetes association, persons with diabetes should discuss with their primary care provider and or endocrinologist before a strenuous wilderness activity. This follow up ensures that athletes are up to date on their screenings, health maintenance labs, and prescriptions needed for therapy. Due to the various ways that diabetes can affect the body, the WMS also recommends that if a patient has cardiovascular involvement, retinopathy, neuropathy, or nephropathy, there should be a more extensive risk assessment by the provider. Although these complications are less commonly seen in high intensity wilderness athletes, adequate histories should be taken to avoid adverse circumstances.
As discussed earlier, altitude accompanied with increased strenuous exercise demands also has various effects on blood glucose management. As it pertains to altitude and blood sugar management in type 1 diabetes, multiple studies have shown an increase in insulin requirements at altitudes above 4000m (13,123′). At this time, researchers are unsure if this finding is due to the effects of acute mountain sickness or hypobaric hypoxia. Therefore, wilderness athletes with diabetes should be aware of the insulin resistance increase at these extreme altitudes. In conjunction with altitude changes, as previously noted, the type of exercise will also play a role in insulin control. Aerobic exercise for longer than 60 minutes can cause a hypoglycemic episode in type 1 diabetics due to the increased muscle sensitization to insulin. Therefore, at altitudes 4000m or above, wilderness athletes will be in a mixed long duration anaerobic/aerobic exercise. With the combination of these factors, there is a counter regulation effect, and the athlete becomes both more sensitive to insulin due to increase duration of exercise and less sensitive due to altitude demands. In order to better predict the effects of altitude combined with exercise, the WMS recommends close monitoring on shorter trips to recognize their specific glycemic trends prior to an extreme high-altitude expedition, as well as increased close monitoring of glucose management during their high-altitude endeavors.
Lastly, in preparation of a high-altitude excursion, there are recommended items that should be packed for daily management of glucose, in addition to back up items to ensure athletes with diabetes aren’t left in a dangerous situation. Fortunately, the WMS was able to create a well-organized table on the recommended supplies.
Treatment of ketoacidosis or HHS:
To be properly prepared, an athlete should complete his/her own research on how changes of altitude and exercise can affect blood glucose management. This includes complete pre-trip preparation and packing. Once cleared, a diabetic athlete can finally head out on the high-altitude adventure. In case of emergency, a diabetic should be aware of the proper steps if he/she were to experience diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA), hyperosmolar hyperglycemic state (HHS), or even acute mountain sickness (AMS). Hyperglycemia is described as a blood glucose greater than 250 mg/dL and without adequate treatment can lead to either DKA or HHS. Type 1 diabetics are more likely to go into DKA, while type 2 diabetics are more inclined to present in HHS. One of the most important indicators if a person were to be in DKA are ketones in blood or urine. This is why it is very important to make sure a wilderness athlete carries ketone strips in his/her emergency medical pack. Typically, if a patient finds ketones in their urine after using a ketone strip, then he/she is educated to seek emergent medical attention. When on a wilderness adventure, this can be a difficult task to accomplish. This is why the WMS also developed a flowchart in order to manage hyperglycemia and DKA without medical support. Refer to table 3 for their flowchart.
One issue that diabetics have when dealing with high-altitude is differentiating hypoglycemia and hyperglycemia side effects from AMS. The most reliable differentiating factor is increased blood sugar readings correlating with symptoms. WMS states that either a continuous glucose monitor or increased finger sticks for a higher frequency of blood sugar readings is important to determine if a person with diabetes is experiencing blood sugar complications of AMS. When discussing treatment of AMS in diabetics, the same methods are used as are recommended for a non-diabetic individual: Acetazolamide and dexamethasone in initial medical management. In regard to diabetes, it is important to discuss the potential additional side effects. Acetazolamide can worsen dehydration and acidosis if used at the wrong time. Dexamethasone is known to worsen blood glucose control. Both are still useful in acute mountain sickness but must be weighed against causing worsened complications.
When participating in a wilderness adventure, individuals with diabetes will be prone to more medical side effects. Changes in altitude, along with the level of activity are known to affect diabetic control, so proper preparation prior to departure is required in order to ensure the health and safety of a diabetic wilderness athlete. After being cleared by a medical professional and obtaining proper information, diabetics can plan to complete a wilderness adventure similar to that of a healthy individual with no comorbidities. However, it is common for diabetics to experience hyperglycemia with high intensity activities and an increase in altitude. Therefore, diabetics (particularly type 1 diabetics), should be prepared with extra insulin to counteract elevated glucose levels. Alternatively, if a diabetic were to be at higher altitude with a longer duration of aerobic or anaerobic exercise, then he/she may be prone to hypoglycemia — lower blood sugar levels. In either case, individuals with diabetes will need to monitor blood sugar levels more closely. The WMS provides diabetics with an outline of recommended supplies that may be needed in the wilderness. The outline also suggests for diabetics to bring ketone strips, as this is the most accurate measurement to determine if a diabetic is in DKA or HHS. The ultimate goal of the WMS is to ensure the health and safety of diabetic athletes. Diabetes is a difficult disease to manage but becomes even more challenging when partaking in a wilderness adventure.
(All tables and figures imported from WMS)
de Mol P, de Vries ST, de Koning EJ, Gans RO, Tack CJ, Bilo HJ. Increased insulin requirements during exercise at very high altitude in type 1 diabetes. Diabetes Care. 2011;34(3):591-595. doi:10.2337/dc10-2015
VanBaak KD, Nally LM, Finigan RT, et al. Wilderness Medical Society Clinical Practice Guidelines for Diabetes Management. Wilderness Environ Med. 2019;30(4S):S121-S140. doi:10.1016/j.wem.2019.10.003
Jonathan Edmunds is a second-year physician assistant student at RRCC PA Program in Arvada Colorado. Jonathan is a Colorado native, born and raised in Littleton, CO. He attended Colorado State University in Fort Collins, CO where he competed in Track and Field as a long jump/triple jumper, as well as earned his bachelor’s Biological Sciences. During his junior year in college, he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and quickly became an advocate the support of diabetes education. After graduating in 2015, he focused his medical career aspirations on becoming a PA. He volunteered at Banner Fort Collins Medical Center and work at Bonfils Blood Center as a phlebotomist for 2 years before applying to PA school. In his free time, he enjoys coaching track and field at Littleton high school his alma mater, doing all things outdoors, and cozying up to his three “Irish” chihuahuas at home.
Dr. Margot Daly DVM, CCRP, CVA, of the Frisco Animal Hospital in Frisco, CO, graduated from the University of California – Davis in 2013, and has worked in general practice, emergency practice, and most recently in specialty practice as a full-time rehabilitation and sports medicine veterinarian. Prior to veterinary school, she studied Sociology at UC Berkeley, and had a career as a professional equestrian, which led to an interest in orthopedics, biomechanics, and physical rehabilitation. Following graduation, she received the Certified Canine Rehabilitation Practitioner designation from the University of Tennessee – Knoxville, and the Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist designation from the Chi Institute in Reddick, Florida. She has been with the Frisco Animal Hospital for a year and a half, and when she is not working, she can be found riding a horse or one of her many bicycles, fostering dogs and kittens, reading books, skiing, or traveling somewhere new!
We interviewed Dr. Daly on her advice for canine high country health, winter dog gear, common winter injuries, and winter activities to participate in with your dog.
One of the most common things to be aware of is canine “weekend warrior syndrome.” Dog owners must be sure their dogs are fit enough to participate in physically intense weekend activities. Many dogs only go out in their yard or take a few short walks during the week and then go on big hikes, back country ski trips, or long mountain bike rides on the weekends. Unfortunately, during the high intensity activity the dog’s adrenaline is high and the dog won’t show signs of fatigue, yet the next day with dog will feel awful and be extremely sore. It is comparable to a human doing cross fit only once per week … [imagine] how he or she would feel the next day. To avoid this phenomenon, ensure your dog is fit enough by practicing 30-60 minutes of moderate exercise at least three times per week, which can include 30 minutes of jogging or 60 minutes of active walking. If your dog is doing less than that during the week, it is important to be thoughtful of what you are asking of your dog or what you are giving them the opportunity to do over the weekend. Unfortunately, a fun weekend can become overly taxing on your dog very quickly.
Signs your dog may have done too much over the weekend include not wanting to go up or down stairs, refusing to jump in and out of the car, or not wanting to get up or down from the couch. Your dog may not necessarily be limping since they are more likely to have general full-body fatigue, aches, and soreness. Your dog should still eat and drink normally, and if they aren’t that is reason to call your vet.
Winter Clothing & Gear
Booties: Dog clothing can be helpful as dogs can get cold just like humans do during outdoor winter activities. Booties can be advantageous during both summer and winter activities. The best policy is to pay attention to your dog’s behavior to determine how necessary booties are. Some dogs make it clear that they are uncomfortable in the snow and slush by holding their paws high in an alternating fashion, sitting down, or refusing to walk. Some dogs are more sensitive than others and some have a higher tolerance for the cold than others.
The key to booties is acclimating your dog over a week or so before taking the booties out on an adventure. The best way to do this is to put your new booties on your dog in your house and then give them a treat or play with their favorite toy. This will help reinforce the booties and make them a fun experience for your dog! This may take several days before the dog will tolerate the booties and walk around comfortably in them. Essentially, don’t wait until the morning of the big hike to put the booties on your dog for the first time. Another strategy is to start with lightweight booties made of felt with one Velcro strap. These are a lightweight cheap option and are the same booties sled dogs on the Iditarod use. It is best to buy a few sets of these to start as some will inevitably get lost. If you find that your dog requires something more substantial, Dr. Daly recommends RuffWear boots which have a heavy rubber sole. Beware these booties may cause difficulty for a dog with mobility issues where heavy booties may impair the dog’s ability to walk safely. Custom booties are also an option and are recommended for dogs with atypically shaped feet such as greyhounds. A company called TheraPaw will coordinate with your vet to get measurements of your dog’s feet and make custom booties.
If your dog is totally intolerant of booties but could benefit from them, you can try musher wax. It provides a slightly waterproof barrier between your dog’s paws and the roads. It also helps prevent ice balls in dogs with a lot of feathering on their paws or between their toes. Put the wax on right before your take your dog outside and wipe the dog’s paws as soon as you get home. This can help protect dogs who have a lot of road time to protect them from road salt, sand, and ice chemicals.
Jackets: Dr. Daly confirms that there are dogs that may benefit from a jacket especially when participating in winter hiking or backcountry skiing. If you see your dog shivering, hunching their back, or crouching their neck and shoulders, your dog is likely cold and would benefit from a jacket. When choosing a jacket, it is imperative that you choose a jacket that has a full chest and short sleeves vs one that just has a strap across the chest. This ensures that the snow will slide off the chest and not become trapped against the dog’s skin. It is hard for a dog to overheat in the winter, but it is a good idea to provide layering for your dog. Most importantly, do not choose a cotton fabric, but a fabric that will wick and dry quickly such as fleece, soft shell, or a technical fabric. If your dog’s jacket becomes wet or soaked, it is important to take it off, because a wet jacket is no longer providing warmth and will end up making your dog colder.
Goggles: There are a large number of canine patients with eye problems related to the UV light exposure at high altitude. In particular, pannus, an eye condition exacerbated by UV light, is common in dogs living at high altitude due to more UV exposure and increased UV reflection off snow. This immune-mediated condition affects the cornea and causes pink or grey granular tissue to grow from the lateral cornea toward the medial cornea. It is a type of chronic superficial keratitis that certain breeds, specifically German shepherds, are more prone to. For this reason, goggles are recommended for dogs living at high altitude especially if the dog is a high risk breed or if they are already diagnosed with pannus. Weekend warriors are at a much lower risk of developing pannus and goggles are not as strongly recommended. As with dog booties, dogs must be acclimated to goggles and the goggles reinforced with treats or play time. It is not recommended to try out goggles for the first time out on the mountain. Aim for about a week of acclimation around the house and neighborhood so your dog tolerates the equipment well. Dr. Daly has had good luck with RexSpecs which do not require a vet to measure the dog, but she is always happy to help owners measure their dogs.
Sunscreen: Surprisingly, canine sunburn is rare, even at high altitude. If it does occur, the burn is normally anywhere the dog has thin to no hair or pink to white skin. Most commonly it occurs on the nose and belly, especially if the dog prefers to lounge on its back in the sun. Mineral-based sunscreens with an active ingredient of titanium dioxide, such as California Baby Brand Sunscreen, are recommended. After putting sunscreen or any ointment on a dog’s nose it is a good idea to immediately give him or her a treat or chew toy to avoid the dog licking the ointment right off.
Prevention at High Altitude
The one best thing you can do to make sure your pet stays healthy and happy at altitude is to ensure adequate hydration. Dr. Daly does not recommend supplemental electrolytes but encourages owners not to depend on mountain streams, rivers, lakes, snow, or puddles to provide adequate hydration for active high country dogs. The high country has giardia and leptospirosis in natural water sources. Giardia can cause gastrointestinal symptoms, and leptospirosis can cause liver and kidney failure as well as having the potential to be transmitted to humans. Bring as much water for your dog as you do for yourself. If you bring one liter then also bring one liter for your dog. Signs your dog may be dehydrated include lethargy, decreased appetite, odd behavior, head-shaking, crying out, or barking. Dogs normally tend to drink more water while at altitude, and this behavior is only concerning if the dog has blood in the urine, appears to be in pain while urinating, or is having accidents in the house when the dog was previously housetrained.
Lastly, if you go camping with your dog it is imperative that you bring your dog’s daily medications with you and not skip a day simply because you are camping. Chronic medications can’t be skipped for even one dose.
Common High Altitude Diagnoses
Dr. Daly sees many recreational injuries and ACL tears between February and April. During this time of year, the snow has a crusty top layer with soft snow underneath. This leads to dogs punching through the top layer and injuring themselves when the soft snow underneath gives way. This post-holing causes many ligament strains and tears this time of year. In the beginning of winter when the conditions are predominantly slippery and icy, she sees wrist and toe strains and sprains from dogs trying to grip with their feet.
Another common injury are lacerations from back country skis. Many people enjoy taking their canine companion back country skiing but fail to train the dog to stay behind them while cruising down the slope. As a result, many dogs end up with lacerations from running in front of or beside their owner and making contact with their owner’s skis. This can lead to lacerations on the dog’s lower legs including around their tendons. It is also important to teach your dog to stay behind you if they come mountain biking. Many dogs end up with injuries from running in front of or beside their owner’s mountain bikes.
Acute mountain sickness (AMS), high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), re-entry HAPE, or high altitude cerebral edema (HACE) are exceedingly rare in dogs. The only situation which may predispose a dog to breathing problems is one coming from sea level with underlying cardiac or pulmonic pathology, such as heart failure or a pulmonary contusion. When coming from sea level with an older dog or one with an underlying comorbidity, it is recommended to stop in Denver for 2-3 nights to let the dog acclimate to the altitude and resultant lower oxygen concentration. Dogs can be prescribed home oxygen concentrators, but these should only be used under the supervision of a veterinarian as they require a specific home kennel or tubing being sewn into the dog’s nare. If your dog falls into a high risk category, Dr. Daly describes “head pressing” as an alarm sign requiring an emergency call to a local vet. This is described as a dog leaning headfirst into a wall, furniture, or other upright object as though it is using the object to hold its head up. Other concerning signs include severe lethargy, vomiting or diarrhea that does not resolve within 24 hours, or respiratory distress of any kind.
Strengthening & Exercise
Most dogs will benefit from some degree of core and hind limb strengthening, as well as exercises to improve proprioception, or body awareness. The stronger and more coordinated the dog is, the lower risk of injury, even with high impact activities. Additionally, dogs can benefit from a personalized exercise program based on their confirmation, for example a long back or short legs, and pre-existing injuries. Dr. Daly’s background in sports medicine gives her a unique viewpoint allowing her to assess any dog and provide a program to prevent future and, more importantly, repeat injuries. If an owner is hoping that his or her companion can return to hiking 14ers after a ligament tear, then a home exercise program is imperative. Plans generally require about 20 minutes of treatment averaging three times a week and incorporating everyday activities such as stairs and working the dog on alternative surfaces. This ensures dog owners don’t necessarily have to invest in additional equipment.
Are there any winter dog sports clubs you recommend?
Dr. Daly has found that many types of active dogs enjoy the variety of mushing sports that can be done in the winter. These include everything from single or double dog skijoring, bikejoring, and canicross (which is a version of cross country running with your dog), all the way to dogsledding with two or more dogs. She is a part of the Colorado Mountain Mushers which is a great place to start for anyone interested in exploring these activities. The club consists of retired professional veterans to amateur mushers and is a friendly, welcoming, all-inclusive group with abundant resources and advice. The club usually runs about four events per year (COVID pending) and can help you learn some new ways to connect with your canine companion, Huskies not required!
Courtney Zak is currently in her second year of PA school at Red Rocks Community College in Arvada, CO. She is a member of the class of 2021 graduating in November. She attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in Chapel Hill, NC for her undergraduate degree in American Studies. She then completed an Occupational Therapy Assistant (OTA) program at Cape Fear Community College in Wilmington, NC. She practiced five years as an OTA working primarily with the geriatric population helping rehab people with various orthopedic injuries, strokes, heart attacks, and general deconditioning. After working up to management, Courtney decided she wanted to gain more medical insight and expand her scope of practice, so she decided to pursue a career as a physician assistant. Courtney now lives in Golden with her husband Jack, three dogs Brooks, Arlo, and Chloe, and her horse, Cannon. She enjoys horseback riding, hiking, paddle boarding, camping, and mountain biking in her free time.
Perhaps you have experienced the snow packed, ice-covered sidewalks of Summit County, Colorado. You crunched your way along annoyed, but never thought much of it after. Imagine you approach the same treacherous sidewalk, only this time you are in a wheelchair. For those living with disabilities relying on mobility and other assistive devices, such a sidewalk is an impassable obstacle, and the unfortunate daily reality for much of the year in our winter-laden towns. No simple walks to morning coffee. No easy access to run errands or get to your doctor’s appointment. Nothing is a simple task.
Meet Leo Santos, a 26-year-old Summit County local who understands such challenges better than most. Since the age of three, Leo was brought up in our own Colorado mountains and knows the life of long winters in a rural town, but at the young and healthy age of sixteen his perspective would change. What started as joint swelling and pain progressed into the debilitating chronic condition known as gout. The disease became so severe it limited Leo’s physical mobility and forced him into a wheelchair. In 2018 Leo developed osteomyelitis, an infection deep in the bones of his left foot. The infection required immediate life-saving treatment, transfer by ambulance to Denver, and intensive care. Leo returned home to Summit as an amputee.
This was a dark time for Leo, now further limited in mobility and relying on in-home nursing care for recovery, an unusual fate for a young man. It was during this recovery Leo’s nurses, provided through Bristlecone Health Services, suggested he reach out to the NorthWest Colorado Center for Independence. After constant prodding from his caregivers, Leo reluctantly agreed to explore the program. The rest was life-changing.
The NorthWest Colorado Center for Independence (NWCCI) is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping individuals with any disability get their independence back. NWCCI serves youth, adults, and seniors alike, connecting them (consumers) with resources including independent living services, housing, transportation, assistive technology, and employment opportunities. Their only requirement? Be a willing participant and have at least one goal toward living independently. The organization has their headquarters in Steamboat Springs, CO, but serves individuals across North West Colorado, including chapters in Craig, Grand County, and Summit County. NWCCI is supported by grants and donations and offers services free of charge to their consumers.
Leo recalls the anger and frustration of his new reality post-amputation and his own reluctance to do anything. Leo remembers the day he decided to make a change, stating, “I can sit here and be miserable or get back out there and do what I love”. He instantly made his first goal: to physically leave his house. It was here he met Carlos Santos, a staff member of NWCCI and now dear friend, who helped Leo accomplish his first goal. Leo fondly recalls his first outing with NWCCI, a group trip to go painting in Breckenridge, and then to Downstairs at Eric’s for pizza and games. Goals were met, a community was found, and life-long friends were made that day.
Despite Leo’s improved outlook with his newfound community, he was not spared of continued challenges. In Fall of 2019 Leo became a double amputee. In addition to another devastating change, he continues to live with intense chronic pain related to gout. He describes his journey away from addictive pain medication and commitment to being free. Leo confessed he does not consider himself to be strong or tough but has learned to deal with it in his own way. Leo hopes to receive his first prosthetic leg this March.
Many challenges face those living with disabilities in the High Country. Anyone needing a prosthesis or wheelchair must travel to Denver for fittings and supplies. Transportation which accommodates disabilities is an ongoing challenge, both with lack of properly adapted vehicles and volunteers to drive them. As the COVID-19 vaccine becomes available to this population and the seniors NWCCI serves, transportation to receive the vaccine is a major concern, as well as getting members on the waiting list. NWCCI hopes to reduce this obstacle. Other challenges outside of mobility include isolation among the disabled and elderly, long winters, and lack of general resources. Additionally, Leo brings to light the continued need for American Disabilities Act (ADA)-compliant housing, a regional challenge even for those without disabilities.
After almost three years as a consumer of NWCCI, Leo now proudly serves as the NWCCI Summit County Youth Coordinator. Leo hopes to inspire and connect with youth by sharing his own story and continued struggles. This year Leo will help plan and attend the Youth Leadership Forum, an annual conference which draws in youth from all over the state and provides education about ADA rights, being a self-advocate, and ultimately providing an opportunity for youth to transition independent from their parents. The conference will be held virtually this year. Leo gives a shout out to the other local programs supporting the disabled community in getting out on the mountain, such as the Keystone Adaptive Center (KAC), and Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center (BOEC).
“NWCCI staff and consumers are here to support anyone who is ready. We are willing to help and teach you if you are willing to help yourself,” he says. Leo stands firmly by this statement, saying they are not intrusive, but rather they are here with a supportive like-minded community with resources for independence when you are ready.
Even the smallest of goals accomplished can change a life Leo explains,
“You don’t have to go anywhere; you can just go outside and sit in the sun. The better you feel the more you will want to do.”
Programs of NWCCI are spread much by word of mouth through consumers. More information can be found on their website at https://www.nwcci.org/. The organization is open to new consumers, volunteers, and donations. Opportunities for connection and support are available to all individuals including virtual gatherings. NWCCI is committed to supporting individuals living in their own homes and the communities they love, regardless of age or disability.
To learn more about the United States’ largest minority group and the world of disabilities, view the inspiring true Netflix documentary Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution. Produced by Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company in 2020, Higher Ground Productions, Crip Camp tells the true story of a group of summer campers in the early 1970’s and their fight for recognition and civil rights. View the trailer here.
Ruth Nash is a second-year family nurse practitioner student at Colorado University, Anschutz Medical Campus. Born and raised in Cleveland, OH, Ruth attended Hocking College earning her Licensed Practical Nurse Diploma and licensure, followed by an Associates in Applied Science and Registered Nurse licensure, then completing a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from Ohio University. From the New England Appalachians, to the Midwest, and now here in the Colorado Rockies; Ruth has served in long-term care, bariatric surgery, pediatrics, special-needs adult programs, youth summer camps, and in the emergency room. Ruth lives full time in Keystone, CO and currently works in the emergency department at St. Anthony Summit Medical Center. Outside of the ER and pursuing an advanced practice license, Ruth enjoys mountain biking, hiking, skiing, rafting, art, and teaching barre fitness at a local dance studio.