Viagra helps climbers deal with high altitudes

Mountain climbers may soon be putting Viagra in their backpacks - not for any obvious (albeit unlikely) reason, but to help them cope with low oxygen concentrations in the air they breathe.

In a study of healthy mountaineers, Viagra increased exercise capacity during severe hypoxia - i.e., oxygen shortage - at low and high altitudes, according to a report published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

“To our knowledge, this is the first time researchers have demonstrated that a pharmacologic approach increases exercise capacity in healthy volunteers during severe hypoxia,” senior author Dr. Friedrich Grimminger, from University Hospital Giessen in Germany, and colleagues note.

Viagra works by dilating blood vessels, and this effect might be the reason for the improvements. The heart can pump blood through the lungs more efficiently.

Fourteen subjects were given Viagra or an inactive placebo in random order, and then immersed in a reduced-oxygen low-altitude or high-altitude environment. Various heart and lung measurements were taken while the participants were resting and when they were on an exercise cycle.

At both low and high altitudes, treatment with Viagra increased the subjects’ maximum workload and the output of their hearts.

At high altitude, Viagra worsened existing headache in two subjects, the investigators found.

The new findings provide “further support” for the role Viagra-like drugs “in the treatment of pulmonary vascular disease,” Dr. Lewis J. Rubin, from the University of California, San Diego, and Dr. Robert Naeije, from Free University of Brussels in Belgium, note in a related editorial.

“Nevertheless, while (Viagra) may ease ‘the weariness which proceeds from the rarity of the air,’ we do not yet understand the mechanisms responsible for this intriguing effect, nor are we ready to apply these findings to patient care,” they conclude.

SOURCE: Annals of Internal Medicine, August 3, 2004.

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Revision date: July 6, 2011
Last revised: by Andrew G. Epstein, M.D.