Aerospace and Aviation Medicine

Aerospace medicine is the domain concerned with the evaluation and maintenance of the health, safety, and performance of individuals involved in air and space travel. The specialty is a broad area involving unique challenges for many healthcare professionals including physicians, nurses, physiologists, psychologists, physician assistants, and others.

Significant challenges are posed within the environments of space and high altitude, which can in some ways also resemble deep undersea conditions, such as diminished gravity and low oxygen (hypoxic) conditions, exposure to G-forces and radiation, and emergency ejection injuries. The environments of interest cover a wide spectrum from space and atmospheric flight to undersea activities.

Common problems that are addressed by aerospace medicine are:

  • High altitude sickness—brought about by the decrease in oxygen and pressure in high altitude areas and commonly presents with dizziness, difficulty of breathing and disorientation.
  • Ear pain or ruptured eardrums—brought about by the difficulty in equalizing the pressure within the ears with the pressure of the ambient environment. This is usually relieved simply by yawning, swallowing, or chewing. However, some individuals, like those with nasal congestion, might find it difficult to equalize and thus experience ear pain.
  • Passing out—exposure to high G-forces can cause abrupt pooling of blood in certain areas of the body and away from the brain. This can cause fainting spells or blackouts, especially in pilots. To address this, pilots are advised to wear special suits, G-suits, that prevent the pooling of blood in unwanted areas.
  • Motion sickness—this is very common in individuals who travel by air. This is characterized by dizziness and vertigo (or the sensation of a moving environment), sometimes accompanied by vomiting. This is due to the movement of the fluid in the ears that disrupts an individual’s sense of balance.
  • Muscle and Bone loss—space astronauts who are constantly exposed to zero gravity environments are prone to muscle and bone loss because they are effectively working against no resistance. Their muscles and bones are not exerting as much effort as they do on earth, hence, their muscles shrink and their bones become brittle.
  • Radiation—in outer space, the astronauts are not protected by the earth’s atmosphere. So they are more exposed to the radiation from the sun, which can damage the DNA of the body and can cause mutations and cancer.

Aerospace medicine is concerned about the safety and health of all air travelers. Aerospace medicine is also responsible for giving clearance that certifies that individuals are fit to travel by air.