Disease and Space

Do astronauts get sick in space and how does the cardiovascular system change in zero gravity? There are some interesting insights from past missions and from studies conducted with ultrasound in space.


The problem of infection

Getting sick in space is a completely different deal. Certainly, astronauts receive an extensive medical check up before a flight. In addition, they are kept in quarantine to avoid infectious diseases.

But serious conditions have occurred in the past.

  • During the Apollo 7 mission the commander Wally Shirra caught a serious cold and infected the entire crew. A flue in space is not trivial as the shift of body fluids, results in congestion of the head, including the nose. A simple cold can have large impact on the wellbeing of astronauts.

  • Fred Haise acquired a urinary tract infection while on the Apollo 13 mission, probably as a result of wearing the so-called “Texas catheter” (condom with a tube coming out the end) for to long.

“Houston we have a problem”

But there are also medical conditions, which led to the evacuation of astronauts. In 1982 A Russian cosmonaut was suspected to have appendicitis and there are several cases of arrhythmias that occurred. A Russian cosmonaut aboard the MIR space station even had a non-sustained rapid VT (215 beats per minute) which was captured during ECG monitoring.

Non-sustained VT possibly as a result of an electrical imbalance, autonomic alterations or volume shift. (Journal of Arrhythmias Tagayasu Anzai MD 2014)

What happens to our body in space

The absences of gravitational forces lead to vestibular dysfunction, upper body swelling weight loss, increase in height, anemia, muscle atrophy, and bone loss.  In particular the cardiovascular system is affected. During take of orthostatic syncope can occur and astronauts might also be at greater risk for developing atrial fibrillation.

The amount of epicardial fat increases, the heart becomes more spherical and the left atrial increases in size.

But even the stiffness of the vessels changes: Here is a NASA video, which highlights the “Vascular Study” conducted by Dr. Richard Hughson:

Vascular US study demonstrating increased vascular stiffness under weightlessness (source NASA). Full video at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EEkWKLd82Yc

Long term effects

Cosmic radiation is another concern. There is increasing evidence that it promotes coronary artery disease. Astronauts are 5 times more likely to die of a heart problem. The chances that an astronaut, who went into deep space dies of a cardiac cause is 43%. Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon is such an example. He died following complications of bypass surgery. Other astronauts such as James Irvine (Apollo 15) and Ronald Evans (Apollo 17) died of cardiac arrest.

Why ultrasound in space makes sense

The bottom line: Space is a pretty unhealthy environment and many problems need to be solved before mankind can embark on prolonged missions to distant galaxies.

But the good thing is: The research provided by space travel and the developments, especially in telemedicine technology and remote expert guidance will help us in our daily work. Watch this NASA video that shows you an example of how Telemedicine is used “on earth”.

Remote expert guidance, helping isolated communities (source NASA) (Full video at: https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/benefits/ultrasound.html)

My personal conclusion: Even though or lab is super busy and I would probably have to see less “patients on a space station. I prefer to image “here on earth”. I do not like the idea of becoming a patient myself.

What are your thoughts?

PS: If you like to read more on ultrasound in space: check out our Blog articles:
The ultrasound moon shot
Ultrasound in space

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