Effects of exercise with oxygen prebreathe for decompression risk reduction

Esther Beltran, The University of Texas School of Public Health


Astronauts performing extravehicular activities (EVA) are at risk for occupational hazards due to a hypobaric environment, in particular Decompression Sickness (DCS). DCS results from nitrogen gas bubble formation in body tissues and venous blood. Denitrogenation achieved through lengthy staged decompression protocols has been the mainstay of prevention of DCS in space. Due to the greater number and duration of EVAs scheduled for construction and maintenance of the International Space Station, more efficient alternatives to accomplish missions without compromising astronaut safety are desirable. This multi-center, multi-phase study (NASA-Prebreathe Reduction Protocol study, or PRP) was designed to identify a shorter denitrogenation protocol that can be implemented before an EVA, based on the combination of adynamia and exercise enhanced oxygen prebreathe. Human volunteers recruited at three sites (Texas, North Carolina and Canada) underwent three different combinations (“PRP phases”) of intense and light exercise prior to decompression in an altitude chamber. The outcome variables were detection of venous gas embolism (VGE) by precordial Doppler ultrasound, and clinical manifestations of DCS. Independent variables included age, gender, body mass index, oxygen consumption peak, peak heart rate, and PRP phase. Data analysis was performed both by pooling results from all study sites, and by examining each site separately. Ten percent of the subjects developed DCS and 20% showed evidence of high grade VGE. No cases of DCS occurred in one particular PRP phase with use of the combination of dual-cycle ergometry (10 minutes at 75% of VO2 peak) plus 24 minutes of light EVA exercise (p = 0.04). No significant effects were found for the remaining independent variables on the occurrence of DCS. High grade VGE showed a strong correlation with subsequent development of DCS (sensitivity, 88.2%; specificity, 87.2%). In the presence of high grade VGE, the relative risk for DCS ranged from 7.52 to 35.0. In summary, a good safety level can be achieved with exercise-enhanced oxygen denitrogenation that can be generalized to the astronaut population. Exercise is beneficial in preventing DCS if a specific schedule is followed, with an individualized VO2 prescription that provides a safety level that can then be applied to space operations. Furthermore, VGE Doppler detection is a useful clinical tool for prediction of altitude DCS. Because of the small number of high grade VGE episodes, the identification of a high probability DCS situation based on the presence of high grade VGE seems justified in astronauts.

Subject Area

Biophysics|Public health

Recommended Citation

Beltran, Esther, "Effects of exercise with oxygen prebreathe for decompression risk reduction" (2000). Texas Medical Center Dissertations (via ProQuest). AAI9981807.