Aviation medicine

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Aviation Medicine


Also known as aerospace medicine, flight medicine, or space medicine, aviation medicine is a medical specialty that focuses on the physical and psychological conditions associated with flying and space travel.


Since flying airplanes and spacecraft involves great risk and physical demands, such as changes in gravity and oxygen, pilots and astronauts need medical experts to protect their safety and the public's safety.


Pressure changes

In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires all pilots who fly above 14,500 ft (4,420 m) to be prepared for pressure changes caused by lower oxygen levels at high altitude. Pilots must either have a pressurized cabin or access to an oxygen mask. Without these protections, they could experience hypoxia, or altitude sickness. Hypoxia reduces the amount of oxygen in the brain, causing such symptoms as dizziness, shortness of breath, and mental confusion. These symptoms could cause the pilot to lose control of the plane. Hypoxia can be treated with oxygen therapy.

Rapid altitude increases and decreases can cause pain because there is an air pocket in the middle portion of the ear. To equalize pressure in the ear, physicians typically advise pilots and passengers to clear their sinuses by plugging their nose and blowing until the eardrums "pop." Other options include yawning, swallowing or chewing gum. For people with a cold or a severely blocked middle ear, the use of decongestants, antihistamines, or nasal sprays may help. Without taking steps to equalize pressure, the tympanic membrane could rupture, causing hearing loss, vertigo, dizziness, and nausea.

Gravity's impact

Fighter pilots who fly high-performance jets can experience health problems during rapid acceleration and when executing tight turns at high speed. During these moves, a pilot experiences extreme gravity conditions that can pull blood away from the brain and heart and into the lower body. This can cause the pilot to have tunnel vision or pass out. To prevent these potentially deadly situations, the military requires fighter pilots to wear special flight suits, or G suits, which have compartments that fill with air or fluid to keep blood from pooling in the lower body.

Some pilots, like the Blue Angels, use a technique called the Valsalva Maneuver instead of G suits to prevent black outs during high-performance flying. The Valsalva Maneuver involves grunting and tightening the abdominal muscles to stop blood from collecting in the wrong parts of the body.

PREVENTIVE CARE. Since any routine health problem that affects a pilot could mean the loss of hundreds of lives, aviation medicine specialists who work for commercial airlines and the military take special care to educate pilots about proper diet, exercise and preventive health tools. For example, physicians may frequently screen pilots for vision changes caused by glaucoma or cataracts. They also will check for hearing loss and encourage the pilot to wear earplugs or headphones to buffer engine noise. To monitor for heart disease, physicians will check blood pressure and may order diagnostic tests such as an ECG or stress test.

Motion sickness

Many people experience nausea, vertigo, and disorientation when they first arrive in space. This is caused by changes in the fluid in the inner ear, which is sensitive to gravity and affects our sense of spatial orientation. The symptoms typically ease after several days, but often recur when the astronaut returns to Earth. To treat this condition, physicians give astronauts motion sickness medication, such as lorazepam.


G suits Special flight suits, worn by fighter pilots, which have compartments that fill with air or fluid to keep blood from pooling in the lower body during rapid acceleration and tight turns.

Hypoxia Hypoxia, or altitude sickness, reduces the amount of oxygen in the brain causing such symptoms as dizziness, shortness of breath, and mental confusion.

Tympanic membrane A structure in the middle ear that can rupture if pressure in the ear is not equalized during airplane ascents and descents.

Valsalva Maneuver Pilots grunt and tighten their abdominal muscles to prevent black outs during high-performance flying.

Bone and muscle loss

In zero-gravity conditions, astronauts lose bone and muscle mass. On earth, the natural resistance of gravity helps build stronger muscles and bones during normal weight-bearing activities like walking or even sitting at a desk. In space, however, astronauts must work harder to prevent bone and muscle loss. Exercise is an important treatment. Crew members may use an exercise cycle or resistive rubber bands to stay in shape. Physicians also may give them medication to prevent bone loss and prescribe nutritional supplements, such as a mixture of essential amino acids and carbohydrates, to limit muscle atrophy.


Another health threat to space travelers is radiation. Harmful rays can alter the DNA in human cells and cause cancer. Excess radiation also can weaken the immune system. To prevent these problems, physicians may give astronauts nutritional supplements. For example, research has show that n-3 fatty acids found in fish oil reduce DNA damage.

Cardiovascular issues

When astronauts return to earth after a long mission, they tend to feel dizzy and black out. Scientists are concerned about this dilemma because it could be dangerous if the crew members need to make an emergency exit. One way to prevent this problem, which is caused by a drop in blood pressure, is to have the astronauts drink extra fluids and increase salt intake to increase blood volume. Physicians also may prescribe medication that causes blood vessels to contract. As another precaution, astronauts also put on protective flight suits, or G suits, before they re-enter the earth's atmosphere.



Aviation, Space and Environmental Medicine. Monthly peerreviewed journal published by the Aerospace Medical Association. Contact theeditor: 3212 Swandale Dr., San Antonio, TX 78230-4404. (210) 342-5670. [email protected]


Aerospace Medical Association. 320 S. Henry St., Alexandria, VA 22314-3579. (703) 739-2240. http://www.asma.org.

National Space Biomedical Research Institute. One Baylor Plaza, NA-425, Houston, TX 77030. (713) 798-7412. [email protected] http://www.nsbri.org.

Wright State University Aerospace Medicine Program. P.O. Box 92, Dayton, Ohio 45401-0927. (937) 276-8338. http://www.med.wright.edu.


Federal Aviation Administration Office of Aviation Medicine. http://www.faa.gov/avr/aamhome.htm.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration Aerospace Medicine. http://spacelink.msfc.nasa.gov.

Society of USAF Flight Surgeons Online Catalog. http://www.sam.brooks.af.mil/ram/rammain.htm.

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aviation medicine, scientific study of the biological effects of aviation, especially on human beings. Although aviation medicine is concerned with such problems as the spread of diseases by persons traveling by air and the harmful effects of noise and air pollution, its principal concern is with stresses applied to the passengers or crew of aircraft in flight. These stresses can include exposure to extreme temperatures, large inertial forces occurring when an aircraft undergoes acceleration, oxygen deprivation, and air sickness, as well as pilot fatigue and psychological disturbances. As the biological problems of space flight exceed considerably those of atmospheric flight, aviation medicine has become a special branch of space medicine, the latter study having largely absorbed the former.