Another Use for Viagra: Soccer Team Takes It to Ward Off Altitude Sickness

In a U.S. research study, scientists explored the benefits of sildenafil on the performance and health of cyclists and triathletes at high altitudes.
In a U.S. research study, scientists explored the benefits of sildenafil on the performance and health of cyclists and triathletes at high altitudes.

Viagra made history in 1998 as the first of a new wave of drugs that in the intervening years have revolutionized the treatment of erection problems. In the years since its introduction, medical researchers and others have found a growing number of other applications for Viagra and other impotence medications.

In one of the more recent such developments, the Washington Post in mid-February 2015 reported on a novel use for Viagra that had been pioneered by an Argentine soccer team.

It seems that members of Argentina’s River Plate soccer team found that sildenafil citrate (Viagra’s active ingredient), taken in combination with aspirin and caffeine, helped to alleviate the symptoms of altitude sickness they experienced when playing away games in the Bolivian highlands.

Altitude Sickness Symptoms

The symptoms of altitude sickness brought on by playing at venues more than 12,000 feet above sea level include drowsiness, headache, and nausea. The Argentine team’s formula has been so successful that it has been widely adopted by other South American soccer teams that must often play matches in the lofty highlands of the continent.

In an interview with Radio La Red of Buenos Aires, Pedro Hansing, team doctor for Colombia’s Millonarios soccer team, said that the sildenafil citrate formula is now the treatment of choice, replacing diuretics, where were previously the preferred mode of treatment.

Although South American soccer teams’ use of the drug to fight the effects of altitude sickness is a relatively recent revelation, research studies provide scientific justification for this use of the drug. A study published in the June 2006 issue of the ¨Journal of Applied Physiology¨ looked at the effects of sildenafil supplementation on the performance of trained cyclists and triathletes at both sea level and simulated high-altitude conditions.

Methodology of Study

A team of researchers drawn from Stanford University School of Medicine and the Palo Alto (California) Health Care System randomly gave these highly trained athletes 50- and 100-milligram tablets of sildenafil and placebos before exercise studies were conducted.

In exercise tests at sea level, researchers found that sildenafil — at either dose — had no effects on metabolic, cardiovascular, or performance measurements. They did note, however, that systolic blood pressure readings tended to be a bit lower and heart rates slightly higher during the later stages of sea-level exercising.

When these same trained athletes performed the exercise routines in simulated high-altitude conditions, the sildenafil, regardless of dose size, had significant benefits on measurements of oxygenation, cardiovascular function, and performance. Because the size of the sildenafil dose seemed to have little or no effect, the published study compares performance by athletes on 50 milligrams of sildenafil to those who were given placebo.

French Study’s Findings Similar

In a French study, the effects of sildenafil on lung ailments associated with high altitudes were tested in an observatory near the summit of Mont Blanc.
In a French study, the effects of sildenafil on lung ailments associated with high altitudes were tested in an observatory near the summit of Mont Blanc.

Roughly 16 months earlier, a team of French researchers published a study that also showed sildenafil’s benefits in protecting against lung problems at oxygen-starved high altitudes. For that study, researchers selected 12 normal, healthy men, most of whom were in their late 20s or early 30s.

According to WebMD’s account of the French study, its lead author, Jean-Paul Richalet, M.D., and his colleagues wanted to see if sildenafil was effective in preventing certain high-altitude health conditions, some of which can be life threatening. One such condition is high-altitude pulmonary edema, or HAPE, which occurs when low air pressure and high altitude cause the blood vessels to leak fluid into the lungs. Untreated, HAPE has a mortality rate of 44 percent.

Study participants’ introduction to high-altitude conditions came in stages. First, they were briefed about the upcoming tests at sea level. Next they were taken to the French mountain town of Chamonix, which sits at an elevation of roughly 3,400 feet in the foothills of the Alps. After a day to adjust to this high altitude, they were taken by helicopter to Observatoire Vallot, which lies just below the summit of Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Western Europe.

Monitored for Altitude Sickness

During a five-day stay at the observatory, which is more than 13,000 feet above sea level, test subjects were monitored three times each day for signs of acute altitude sickness.  On days two and five, participants were asked to exercise on cycling machines until they could do no more.

Half of the study participants were given sildenafil, and the other half received placebo. Those given sildenafil received 40-milligram doses three times a day. Both groups suffered from extreme mountain sickness until the fourth day at the observatory. After one or two days at higher elevations, test subjects in both groups had blood pressure readings that were an average of 29 percent higher than those recorded at sea level. On top of that, participants in both groups complained of stomach problems and dizziness.

Blood Pressure Normalizes

Blood pressure readings in the test subjects given sildenafil slowly began to normalize, and by the sixth day of the experiment, blood pressure readings among this group averaged 6 percent lower than they were before the study began. Among those who got placebo, blood pressure readings remained high, leveling off at about 21 percent above normal.

Sildenafil citrate, the active ingredient in Viagra, appears to be helpful in treating symptoms of altitude sickness.
Sildenafil citrate, the active ingredient in Viagra, appears to be helpful in treating symptoms of altitude sickness.

In his conclusion to the French study, published in ¨American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine,¨ Dr. Richalet said the findings were encouraging, and he encouraged further study to see if sildenafil could replace current HAPE treatment with calcium channel blockers and steroids.

The encouraging reports about sildenafil’s effectiveness in treating altitude sickness is yet another revelation of the little blue pill’s amazing versatility.

Treats Pulmonary Hypertension

In addition to its well-known use in treating erection problems, sildenafil is also marketed under the trade name Revatio for the treatment of pulmonary arterial hypertension. It combats high blood pressure in the lungs in much the same way it optimizes blood flow to the penis so that erection is possible. The drug relaxes and dilates the blood vessels in the lung, which lowers pulmonary blood pressure.

In a January issue of ¨Science Signaling,¨ researchers in Pittsburgh announced promising findings from an animal study that showed sildenafil was effective in protecting laboratory mice’s livers from the damage that can be caused by sepsis, which is the body’s systemic inflammatory response to infection.

May Work in Humans

If these results can be replicated in human testing, sildenafil could eventually be used to reduce ¨the excessive inflammation associated with multiple organ failure and mortality during sepsis,¨ according to the study’s conclusion.

Interestingly, sildenafil was originally tested by Pfizer researchers as a possible treatment for angina pectoris and high blood pressure. Though it failed to pass the test as a treatment for these ailments, scientists studying the drug noted that male subjects, some of whom had been impotent for a while, began experiencing strong erections after using the drug. Research on sildenafil’s use to treat angina was shelved in favor of studies to learn more about the medication’s ability to facilitate erection.

Don Amerman is a freelance author who writes extensively about a wide array of nutrition and health-related topics.

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