EXCLUSIVE- Travelling To The Mountains? Expert Explains How Sudden Cardiac Arrest Can Be Triggered At High Altitudes

According to a recent research from the American Heart Association that offers guidance against engaging in recreational activities in mountainous regions, visiting high-altitude sites may be risky for those with high blood pressure or certain cardiac problems.

Serious and even deadly consequences including sudden cardiac death, which can happen during the first 24 hours of an altitude change, are possible.

Although many individuals are aware with the signs of severe mountain sickness, including headaches, nausea, and weakness, they are less prepared for emergencies involving their heart.

In an exclusive conversation with Zee English, Dr Ranjan Shetty, HOD & Consultant – Interventional Cardiology, Manipal Hospital shares more about what are the triggers of sudden cardiac arrest when there is a change in altitude.

Dr Shetty says, “High altitude requires a certain level of cardiac fitness. Typically, what occurs is that the body, accustomed to sea level or slightly elevated altitudes, experiences distinct physiological changes upon ascending to high altitudes.” 

“As individuals go to higher altitudes, the pressure on the heart and lungs significantly increases. This heightened demand can potentially lead to reactionary pulmonary oedema and a reduction in oxygen saturation. Even for individuals without any heart ailments, acclimatizing to high altitudes can be challenging. Therefore, we strongly advise people to gradually acclimatize before ascending to high altitudes.”

In rare cases where individuals need to rapidly reach high altitudes, doctors may prescribe certain medications as protective agents. However, for individuals with pre-existing heart issues, which might not be readily apparent, the challenges are even greater even though they believe to have cardiac fitness. 

“Those with existing heart conditions, such as arterial blockages, face increased difficulties. Acclimatization in such cases demands more time, as the period required for adjustment can be variable. Some people also underestimate their actual cardiac fitness,” mentions Dr Ranjan.

Given these considerations, it is important for individuals planning any high-altitude treks or travels to undertake thorough preparations which includes embarking on a comprehensive training regimen, seeking professional advice, and undergoing a baseline cardiac evaluation. 

The process of preparing for high-altitude endeavors might extend over three to six months, ensuring ample time for physical conditioning and medical assessments. Rushing into high-altitude zones without adequate preparation can expose individuals to significant health risks, like sudden cardiac arrest (SCA).

Recommend Health Tests To Take Before A Trip

“Certainly, to be cautious, we recommend undergoing a treadmill test and an echocardiogram (ECHO) to ascertain cardiovascular well-being. But if you want to be very sure of your heart health, particularly if you have certain risk factors or borderline cholesterol levels, more extensive tests such as CT Angiograms might be necessary to ensure your cardiovascular health,” recommends Dr Ranjan Shetty.

“It’s important to recognize that these tests are not universally required. They should be administered selectively, especially for individuals with diabetes, hypertension, or a family history of cardiovascular issues. When there are doubts regarding an individual’s baseline cardiovascular capacity, these tests become essential.”

In conclusion, Dr Shetty offers advice by stating, “I would recommend that before planning to venture into high-altitude environments, you should recognize the challenges your cardiovascular systems might face. Adequate preparation, which includes acclimatization, physical training, and medical assessments, is essential to mitigate the risks associated with high-altitude travel.”

Consider consulting with your cardiologist to determine the appropriate tests and evaluations is a prudent step for anyone considering such journeys.