Can Ibuprofen Help Altitude Sickness?
Can popping an ibuprofen before venturing into elevation help relieve those headaches?
The following article is for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advance, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking professional medical advice because of content you read in this article.
Andrew C. Krakowski, MD, "Dr. K", from boonDOCS talks about the potential preventative benefits of ibuprofen and High Altitude Headaches.
I recently heard that medications that contain ibuprofen, like Motrin or Advil, could actually help prevent altitude sickness. What’s this all about?
Dr. K - Headaches are one of the most common medical problems people experience at high altitude. While high altitude headache (HAH) may occur as an isolated problem, it is also considered an early warning sign of acute mountain sickness (AMS), which itself can progress to high altitude cerebral edema – a very serious condition with significant risk of death. Thus, effectively preventing HAH and AMS at an early stage would represent a significant medical achievement.
Ibuprofen is a widely available over-the-counter medication that belongs to the class of pharmaceuticals known as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Acting as an anti-inflammatory, ibuprofen is commonly used to treat HAH once it has started. Not much information is known, however, about ibuprofen’s ability to prevent AMS.
Recently, a group of medical researchers tried to answer the question, “Does ibuprofen help to prevent HAH and AMS?” To test ibuprofen’s effectiveness, they compared it to acetazolamide, a prescription medication that has long been used to prevent AMS and to a placebo (basically, a “sugar pill” without any medical effect). The researchers designed the study so that both the participants and the researchers would not know what medication (or placebo) each participant received until after the study was completed; this was done to minimize biased analysis of the data. The research took place between October and November 2005 along the approach trail to Mount Everest in the Nepali Himalaya. Trekkers, 18 to 65 years of age, took a minimum of 3 doses of the unknown medication (or placebo) at the starting altitude of about 4300 meters before proceeding to an altitude of just under 5000 meters. At that point, participants completed questionnaires that assessed if they had a high altitude headache and other problems known to be associated with AMS.
All in all, 265 people participated in the study’s final analysis. The results showed that most people who took either ibuprofen or acetazolamide had less rates of headache overall and had less severe headaches compared to placebo. Importantly, taking either ibuprofen or acetazolamide seemed to reduce the overall likelihood of developing HAH and AMS compared to placebo.
There were some potential problems with this ambitious study:
- First, participants started the study already at an altitude of about 4300 meters. Consequently, some of the people may have had time to acclimate to the high altitude. These participants may not have developed headaches simply because of this factor alone; counting these participants in the medication groups would make it look like ibuprofen or acetazolamide were helping when, in reality, it was the acclimatization that really made the difference.
- Second, this study took place in a very specific location, during a very defined moment of time, involving a very specific group of people. Applying the conclusions of this study to other environments or other groups of people might not produce the same results.
- Third, while 265 people might sound like a lot of participants, it is actually a small number when you consider the complexities of trying to answer a medical question such as this one. Larger studies across larger groups of participants need to be done before these conclusions become universally accepted.
In total, this new study is very interesting because it reaffirms the long-held medical belief that acetazolamide can prevent acute mountain sickness. Second, it suggests that ibuprofen may also work well to prevent high altitude headache and AMS. This is good news because ibuprofen is readily available, inexpensive, and does not require a prescription. As always, talk to a doctor before using any medication – prescription or otherwise.