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Decreased atmospheric pressure at altitude has profound effects on human physiology and anesthetic delivery. Approximately 140 million people worldwide live at altitudes above 2500 m (8000 ft). These residents have the usual needs for surgical and anesthesia care in their native localities. Additionally, millions of people transiently visit high altitudes. Anesthesiology providers are asked to support military operations, aviation, mountain climbing expeditions, and humanitarian missions at extreme altitudes. Safe and effective anesthesia care at high altitude requires an understanding of the normal and pathological effects of altitude and an appreciation for the anesthetic challenges in this environment.


Atmospheric pressure decreases nonlinearly with increase in altitude. Half of the atmosphere is below 18,000 ft and the remainder is up to >100,000 ft. Increased altitudes are often categorized to denote their increasing effect of physiology:

  • “High altitude” begins at 1500 m (~5000 ft) above sea level.

  • “Very high altitude” begins at 3500 m (~11,500 ft) above sea level.

  • “Extreme altitude” begins at 5500 m (~18,000 ft) above sea level.

Anesthetics delivered between 5000 and 11,500 ft require only modest changes from standard sea-level practices. Anesthetic care above 11,500 ft. becomes increasingly problematic. Fractional atmospheric oxygen concentration remains approximately 21% at all altitudes. As atmospheric pressure decreases with elevation, the absolute partial pressure of oxygen in air declines according to Dalton’s Law, which states the sum of all partial pressures equals the total pressure. The alveolar gas equation defines a partial pressure for alveolar oxygen based on barometric pressure:


where PAO2 is the partial pressure oxygen in the alveolus (mmHg), FiO2 is the fractional concentration of oxygen in inhaled gas, Patm is the barometric (atmospheric) pressure (mmHg), PH2O is the vapor pressure of water at body temperature (47 mmHg), PaCO2 is the partial pressure of CO2 in the alveolus (mmHg), and RQ is the respiratory quotient (moles CO2 produced per moles O2 consumed, which is typically about 0.82 for normal diet).

Using the alveolar gas equation, the effects of altitude and CO2 on alveolar (PAO2) and arterial oxygen (PaO2) become very evident (Table 22-1; Figure 22-1).

TABLE 22-1Altitude Effects on Partial Pressure of Oxygen and Saturation

Hemoglobin saturation declines rapidly with increasing altitude. (Adapted with permission ...

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