Altitude and Hypoxia and the Dakar Rally

A continuous supply of oxygen is essential for proper physical and mental functioning, no matter the environment. If this supply is compromised for any reason, a condition called hypoxia, or a lack of oxygen, results. Everyone who travels to high altitude experiences some degree of low oxygen / hypoxia before their body adapts to the lower oxygen levels. At high altitude, exercise and even simple tasks become more difficult. Eventually mental effects begin to appear.

Large gaps of knowledge still exist in our understanding of how the body is impacted by hypoxia. Fitness does not protect against altitude sickness. There is little to no research exploring how altitude affects vulnerable populations, such as elderly people with underlying cardiovascular, respiratory, and metabolic diseases. Little is known about the interaction between altitude and underlying diseases. For example, smoking and physical fitness do not predict who will have adverse effects from altitude exposure. Whereas obesity and other heart diseases seem to increase susceptibility to altitude illness. People over 50 years old have a lower incidence of altitude illness than all other age groups. Women are more susceptible to acute mountain sickness than men. The point is that who gets sick from high altitude is a mystery and the best you can do is to be prepared.

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What is Altitude Sickness?

Altitude sickness or better termed Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is any condition directly related to the reduced oxygen levels of high altitude environments. The severity of these conditions varies from a minor headache to life threatening swelling of the brain and lungs. Because all altitude sickness is a result of low oxygen levels, treatment with supplemental oxygen or descent to low altitude rapidly reverses symptoms.

Potential problems with racing at high altitude

Potential problems with racing at high altitude are many. Everything from how the engine runs to how you fuel your body will be very important. The biggest thing is to prepare correctly and have experienced help. Equally important is to be prepared with medications to treat AMS. Having a clean bill of health is going to be key. Individuals who suffer from obesity, migraines, seizures, visual difficulties, nausea and vomiting, and other elements will find the altitude more difficult to deal with. Everyone will run into difficulties with the altitude.

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Cars running bad / Motorcycles running bad / Humans running bad

How well a car or motorcycle runs at high altitudes is dependent on the mechanics and their knowledge, likewise, how well your body runs at high altitude depends on the experience of the doctor or trainer you are working with. What is for certain, racers who have really prepared will be fine, and those who do not prepare will not do so well.

The racers who will fare well in this year’s Dakar rally are those who already live at altitude and those who have adapted to altitude. Since many of the racers are from Europe this probably will be a minority. Racers who are in excellent shape, and have properly optimized their iron and red blood cell levels, are the ones who will do the best. Those who practice exposing themselves to lower oxygen concentrations are the ones who are going to be less affected by the altitude. For the racers and crew members who have not prepared for being at altitude for extended periods of time will face many difficulties. Acute mountain sickness will be the major obstacle for many of these people. Dehydration, headaches, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, mental confusion are just some of the things that will arise for those who have not prepared. In my opinion somebody plans to come to this year’s Dakar and has not done any preparation, they should just stay home.

Mechanics are often not a testament of great health. The racers success depends as much on the mechanic’s skill set as their own. Also, fatigue greatly affects a mechanics ability. Many of the mechanics are up all night working on the cars and bikes; most will find that it will be more difficult to stay up all night and work on machinery. The first couple of days may go just fine, but the fatigue will catch up to them and eventually they will not be able to perform their jobs or function at a useful capacity thus affecting the whole team.

Also teams that don’t bring somebody who is experienced in dealing with acute altitude sickness may be in trouble. I predict the medical tents are going to be inundated with riders and crew members seeking treatment for symptoms of altitude sickness. Add this to the normal plethora of injuries that take place in the Dakar each year and it is not going to be a pretty site.

Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS)

It is best to refer to altitude sickness as AMS. AMS is a medical problem directly related to the reduced oxygen levels of high altitude environments. The severity of these conditions varies from a minor headache to life threatening swelling of the brain and lungs. Because all altitude sickness is a result of low oxygen levels, treatment with supplemental oxygen or descent to low altitude rapidly reverses symptoms. The body is usually adapted to a certain altitude and functions best at that altitude. When the body is taken out of that environment, several things take place and the body in a way fights back. Symptoms of altitude sickness usually occur after some hours of being in higher altitudes. If the symptoms are not treated they can linger about for many days until the body adapts to a certain altitude. The treatment is very specific for altitude sickness and oxygen is among them.

Next post will deal with who will get AMS