INTERVIEW. “Hyperventilation can be a solution to acute mountain sickness”, the research of an Annecy doctor continues

For five years, Alexander Buijze, an orthopedic surgeon in Annecy, has been looking for a cure for acute mountain sickness. To fight against this syndrome causing headaches or dizziness, the doctor encourages hyperventilation.

Doctor Alexander Buijze went up to 4 950 meters of altitude to find a cure for acute mountain sickness. Between 2016 and 2020, the Annecy doctor led several expeditions to Mount Leonera, Chile, with four other scientists.

To Through these journeys, he tries to fight acute mountain sickness. This syndrome, which occurs at altitude, in thousands of mountaineers can cause headaches, dizziness, vomiting or edema. Controlled hyperventilation could, according to Alexander Buijze’s studybe an alternative “efficient” to taking medication.

What was your starting point for this study?

The hypothesis was to be able to find an alternative to taking medication to prevent acute mountain sickness. We based ourselves on a preliminary study carried out in 2014 at Mount Kilimanjaro. We had found that a method based on breathing, cryotherapy and meditation gave a much higher than average success rate. From this, we wanted to focus on the breathing rate to find the most optimal technique to prevent acute mountain sickness without taking medication.

What is this breathing technique?

This is the controlled hyperventilation method. It is simply a technique in which we increase our ventilation to find a more efficient breathing rate in an environment where oxygen is less. Past 2 500 meters above sea level, we have much lower oxygen levels than usual. All you have to do is adapt your breathing to be more efficient and maintain a saturation rate closer to normal.

How did you test this method?

We tested this controlled hyperventilation in the high mountains near Santiago in Chile, with 32 Andean students. In this randomized study, we compared two groups. The first control group had taken Diamox. This reference drug including acetazolamide causes us to breathe more, in a metabolic way. The second group practiced the controlled hyperventilation method. Consciously and voluntarily, these students therefore adapted and increased their ventilation without experiencing vertigo.

What were the conclusions of this experiment?

We observed, in this group of 32 participants, that controlled hyperventilation can be as effective as taking medication. Everything depends on the constancy of this practice. In addition to this, this method can also have a healing effect when one develops the first mild symptoms of acute mountain sickness. It can therefore be an alternative to taking medication or a supplement.

It’s always interesting to find alternatives, especially when you practice sport. There are athletes who do not want to take medication. There are also those who do not tolerate medication. This helps to avoid undesirable effects.

Would you like to go further in your research?

Hyperventilation can change the practice of high mountains if we manage to constantly control it. By integrating technology such as connected watches or oximeters, this could make it possible to constantly find the most effective breathing rate for the prevention of acute mountain sickness. Succeeding in doing this is the next step because for the time being, hyperventilation is not yet very widespread in the high mountains.

Interview by Marion Feutry and Maxime Quemener

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INTERVIEW. “Hyperventilation can be a solution to acute mountain sickness”, the research of an Annecy doctor continues

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