Insomnia can show its ugly little face in many different ways. Pilots, flight attendants, and even military trainees can suffer from this rare form of insomnia. This occurs when there is ascension to altitudes greater than about two miles up. In addition to the insomnia itself, altitude insomnia also includes fatigue, headache, and loss of appetite. One thing to keep in mind is that altitude is not always a factor that is related to flying in an airplane because altitude insomnia is also common among mountain climbers too.
Clinically, it has been indicated that usually within a week of being exposed to the high altitudes, the person will experience insomnia where they will be able to sleep but the sleep will be interrupted consistently due to the inability to catch their breath. They may feel like they are suffocating or choking. There may also be other symptoms as mentioned above that can accompany the altitude insomnia.
Altitude insomnia occurs in about 25% of people who rise about 2000 miles above sea level. Clinically, altitude insomnia has a few other names such as acute mountain sickness, Acosta’s disease, Alpine sickness, and hypobaropathie. The primary cause of this is exposure to low air pressure which is what happens to people at high altitudes. Now because the aircrafts of today are modernized, the cabins are pressurized which therefore does not affect travelers on airplanes.
Normally it is the symptoms that are associated with the altitude that trigger the insomnia. Those who climb mountains, pilots, or flight crews follow what they consider to be a Golden Rule, “Fly high and sleep low.” While that might not make much sense to the average Joe, to them it signifies a way to expose and re expose themselves to repeated altitude little by little to avoid these symptoms. They ascend gradually, however this is not possible with flight crews. Many claim that fast ascension is not the issue at all but experts do agree that there is much about this in particular disorder that is not fully understood yet. There has been a strong link though that has indicated that when there is a rapid dissension that the symptoms disappear very quickly.
There are drugs that can also help to prevent altitude insomnia; Diamox and Sumatriptan are both prescribed with the prevention of altitude sickness in mind, therefore eliminating any altitude insomnia. Self help measures include drinking plenty of water and cocoa leaves have also been known to help altitude sickness as well. Although altitude insomnia is one of many symptoms that occur with extreme heights, it is important to remember that this is a lung complication where the lings are affected by the extreme altitude.
Recently a new drug came out to help people with this condition. Acetazolamide will be able to help many people that are subjected to altitude related illnesses. What researchers found was that this drug reduced pressure within the lungs by relaxing muscles that line the lungs’ capillaries. This reduces fluid in the lungs and increases oxygenation.