High Altitude Psychosis Seen As Stand Alone Medical Illness

mountain climber high altitude psychosis

News for mountain climbers in high altitude settings

If you are a mountain climber, you might be interested in new research that has come out about psychotic episodes occurring at extreme altitudes.

Investigators from Eurac Research in Italy and the Medical University of Innsbruck in Austria have determined that high-altitude psychosis is a stand-alone medical illness and not a condition stemming from acute altitude sickness as had been previously believed.

Investigators collected around 80 psychotic episodes from German mountain literature and carefully analyzed each of the symptoms described.

More: Fear of losing control and anxiety

After a great deal of scientific scrutiny, the research team concluded the condition qualifies as a new medical entity: isolated high-altitude psychosis.

Up until this point, physicians had linked these acoustic, olfactory, and optical hallucinations to organic causes in the brain. That’s because they often occur with symptoms, like severe dizziness, headaches, and impaired balance – all side effects of a high-altitude cerebral edema, or brain swelling due to inflammation.

“In our study we found that there was a group of symptoms which are purely psychotic; that is to say, that although they are indeed linked to altitude, they cannot be ascribed to a high-altitude cerebral edema, nor to other organic factors such as fluid loss, infections or organic diseases,” said Hermann Brugger, head of the Institute of Mountain Emergency Medicine at Eurac Research.

Previously published data suggest Isolated high-altitude psychosis most often occurs at heights exceeding 7,000 meters (22,965 feet) above sea level.

At present, scientists have only been able to guess the causes. For example, it may be that factors like oxygen deficiency, the situation of being totally dependent on oneself, and the initial stages of brain swelling could act as triggers for psychosis.

Interestingly, the symptoms completely disappear after the mountaineer exists the danger zone and descends down the mountain. Furthermore, there doesn’t appear to be any consequential damage.

“This discovery has allowed us to make a more thorough investigation of temporary psychoses in otherwise completely healthy people, an investigation which might yield important indications for the understanding of psychiatric diseases such as schizophrenia,” said researcher Dr. Katharina Hüfner, lecturer at the University Clinic in Innsbruck.

The new findings are important because the syndrome raises the risk of accidents.

“There are probably unknown numbers of unreported accidents and deaths caused by psychoses. So as to reduce the number of such accidents, it is of the greatest importance to disseminate cognitive coping strategies which the mountaineers themselves, or with the help of their partners, can apply directly while on the mountain,” shared Hüfner.

The researcher teams plan to collaborate with Nepalese physicians by taking part in new investigations in the Himalayas. One of their goals is to find out how frequently this type of illness occurs.

“The highest mountains in the world are maddeningly beautiful,” said Brugger. “It’s just that we had no idea that they could actually drive us to madness as well.”

The research findings are published in the journal Psychological Medicine.

Source: Eurac Research

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Brian is a journalist specializing in men's issues. His interests include men’s health, physical fitness, fishing, exercise training, men’s grooming and medical news impacting men. He holds a Bachelors in Liberal Studies from the University of San Diego. Click on: BIO to learn more about his background.