Aviation Medicine is a special branch of medicine, which deals with medical problems associated with flying and space travel. It is also called as space medicine, flight medicine and aerospace medicine.
During flying spaceships and airplanes, astronauts and pilots are subjected to changes in gravity, pressure and oxygen level that may cause serious medical problems in them in the long run. To treat such cases a special branch of medicine called Aviation Medicine came into existence.
Aviation Medicine or Aerospace Medicine Description:
When a pilot flies above an altitude of more than 14,000 ft, he is subjected to pressure changes due to low oxygen levels at such high altitudes. These pressure changes may cause altitude sickness or hypoxia in the pilots. Hypoxia is a condition in which the level of oxygen in brain reduces and causes symptoms such as mental confused state, dizziness and breath shortness. Pressurized cabins and access to oxygen masks are provided to pilots to deal with low oxygen level problems.
Rapid changes in altitude cause pain, due to the presence of tiny air pocket in the middle of ear. Differential pressure, especially during ascent and descent, causes the tympanic membrane to burst leading to deafness, nausea and vomiting, dizziness and in some cases vertigo. Equal pressure can be maintained in the ear by clearing the sinuses by blowing the nose until the eardrum pops. Other methods such as yawning, chewing gum and swallowing are also helpful. Those who have cold or ear infection shall use nasal sprays, decongestants, and antihistamines.
Sudden and rapid acceleration and high speed turnings while flying high performance jets such as supersonic jets can cause serious and fatal health problems in pilots. During such maneuvers, the pilot is subjected to extreme gravity that pulls the blood away from heart and brain to lower body parts, leaving the pilot with tunnel vision or to pass out during flight. To avoid such type of dangerous conditions during flights, pilots wear special flight suits called G-suits, which have compartments filled with fluid or air that prevent the pooling of blood in lower body parts.
An alternative to G-suits is a method called Valsalva Maneuver in which the pilot grunts and tightens his abdomen muscles to prevent the blood flowing down to lower parts of the body.
Aerospace Medicine – Preventive Measures:
- Regular check up of pilots for vision changes caused due to glaucoma and cataract.
- Tests to check hearing loss due to engine noise. To prevent hearing loss pilots are advised to use ear plugs or headphones.
- Checking of blood pressure, taking ECG and stress tests.
Problems specific to Astronauts:
When astronauts reach space, they are affected by motion sickness in which they feel dizziness, vertigo and disorientation, because of the fluid in the ear, which is sensitive to changes in gravity and pressure. This fluid also affects our sense of spatial orientation. When astronauts return to earth they may again face the same problem. Generally, doctors give them motion sickness medication, such as lorazepam.
In space, astronauts undergo bone and muscle loss due to zero gravity conditions. On earth, gravity helps to build stronger muscles and bones when we exercise. In order to prevent the bone and muscle loss in space astronauts needs special exercise equipments such as resistive rubber bands and cycles to main their shapes. In addition to that, nutritional supplements such as the combination of amino acids and carbohydrates are given to astronauts to prevent the muscle loss.
Astronauts are exposed to harmful radiations in space that may alter the DNA and causes cancer. To reduce the radiation impact, nutritional supplements such as n-3 omega fatty acids found in fish are given to astronauts.
When astronauts return to earth, their blood pressure drops causing black outs in them. This is an extremely dangerous situation, especially when the making emergency landing and exit. This can be prevented by increasing the fluid and salt intake to increase the blood volume. In addition to these medications that cause blood vessels to contract are given to astronauts.