Argentine Soccer Players Turn to Viagra for Boost

Viagra is most famous as a treatment for erectile dysfunction, but has many other uses as well.
Viagra is most famous as a treatment for erectile dysfunction, but has many other uses as well.

Viagra, Pfizer’s blockbuster drug for erectile dysfunction, works by relaxing smooth muscle tissues that line blood vessels, thus improving blood flow.

Viagra started out as an experimental drug for heart problems before ever being considered as a treatment for ED. Since the drug was introduced in 1998, it has proven its worth not only for men with ED, but in treating a number of other conditions as well.

Just recently, in the 2014 Copa Libertadores, the premier international club football tournament in South America, players for Argentine club San Lorenzo took sildenafil citrate, the active ingredient in Viagra, before a critical semi-final match in Bolivia against Bolivian club Bolivar. But this tactic had nothing to do with erectile problems.

San Lorenzo vs. Bolivar: A High Altitude Match

The drug was used to help the Argentine players (whose home club is located roughly at sea level) cope with the high altitudes at the Estadio Hernando Siles. That stadium is the highest FIFA-approved football stadium in the world, at an altitude of 11,932 feet above sea level. Players took the medication to help with oxygenation of their blood at the extreme altitude.

It’s been done before. San Lorenzo manager Edgardo Bauza used the same technique earlier in the Copa Libertadores, when the team played at another high altitude venue against Ecuador’s Independiente de la Valle. San Lorenzo won that match 1-0.

Prior experience at Estadio Hernando Siles made clear the problems that playing at high altitude could cause, with at least one player becoming ill during the match and another having to leave the field wearing an oxygen match as the team managed to labor to a draw against Bolivia.

Effects of Altitude on Athletic Performance

 “High altitude” is generally classified as elevations greater than 6,500 feet above sea level, though some effects may be experienced at lower elevations. With less oxygen in the air at higher altitudes, the human body starts producing more red blood cells so that the blood can be oxygenated sufficiently. A hormone known as erythropoietin, or EPO, is released from the kidneys, triggering production of red blood cells in the bone marrow of the body’s long bones (primarily the thigh bone). It takes more than a week for an athlete to be 75% accustomed to the thin air, with full acclimatization taking around 20 days.

Because of the longer term effects of altitude (causing the body to make more red blood cells, which oxygenate the blood more efficiently), high altitude training has long been used as a performance enhancing training method. Physiological effects of high altitude training continue for up to three months after an athlete returns to a sea level training regimen.

At the extreme high altitude of the Estadio Hernando Siles, exercise capacity is 84% what would be expected at sea level, and the percentage of oxygen in the air is only 66% what it would be at sea level. Therefore, a team arriving from a lower altitude without the chance to acclimate to the extreme altitude would be at a competitive disadvantage.

Viagra and Altitude Sickness

Viagra has been used to help prevent altitude sickness.
Viagra has been used to help prevent altitude sickness.

Sildenafil has been shown to significantly improve cardiovascular performance of trained athletes at high altitude, though it doesn’t work equally well in everyone. Of a group of trained cyclists who responded to treatment with Viagra at high altitude, time trial performance improved by 39% compared to performance at normal altitude. Some cyclists showed even more impressive gains. When the drug was given to cyclists at sea level, it conferred no benefit compared to placebo.

French researchers found several years ago that Viagra was better than a placebo at protecting men’s lungs as they ascended to higher altitudes. Though all the men in that study suffered effects of extreme altitude, the group that took Viagra before ascending Mont Blanc had less of a setback than the placebo group. At high altitudes, the drug can help get more oxygen to working muscles to better support strenuous athletic activity.

So, Did It Work?

Sort of. San Lorenzo lost 0-1 against Bolivar at the high altitude venue, but the club’s previous 5-0 drubbing of Bolivar in Argentina the week before allowed San Lorenzo to move on to the 2014 Copa Libertadores finals against Nacional Asuncion of Paraguay. The first match of the finals, played August 6 in Paraguay resulted in a 1-1 draw. As of this writing, the final match, set for Buenos Aires, has not been played yet. Both these venues are at low altitudes, so Viagra would presumably not confer any benefit to the athletic performance of either side.

Other Unexpected Uses for Viagra

While Viagra is world famous as a treatment for ED, the drug is proving to have promise in treating other conditions as well. One condition in which it has shown significant benefit is a rare disease called pulmonary arterial hypertension. Sildenafil citrate relaxes the pulmonary arterial wall, causing lowered resistance and pressure and reducing the workload of the heart. The drug is also effective in treating the symptoms of right-side heart failure.

Viagra has also shown promise in countering the effects of stroke, reducing mortality and improving neurological functioning when given within three days of a stroke. And limited studies have shown promise in treating restricted growth of fetuses in utero, with further studies planned. Studies have also shown promising results for treatment of heart problems in patients with certain types of muscular dystrophy, and in children with lymphangioma, a lymphatic system abnormality.

Conclusion

Viagra is not just for erectile dysfunction. Though the drug is most famous as a treatment for ED, it has many other uses as well, including helping athletes cope with high altitudes. Was Viagra the key to San Lorenzo’s holding Bolivar to one goal at their high altitude stadium in the 2014 Copa Libertadores semi-final? Who’s to say? But it appears that it didn’t hurt. Viagra is proving versatile enough that it is being tested in treatment of a range of conditions, most of which have nothing to do with sexual function.

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