Are High Altitudes Bad for Someone who Sustained a Brain Injury?

Question: 

My daughter had a brain injury five years ago when she was 14 in which a portion of her skull pierced her brain. Doctors had to replace part of her skull with metal and screws. She has no lingering effects other than a changed personality and the odd headache.

She is still very active. She recently flew to New Zealand and wants to go skydiving. Would that be a bad choice based on her history?

Answer: 

There two issues here. The first is the effects of high altitude on the injured brain and the second is the potential effects of skydiving on the brain.

There is no published evidence to help us know if flying in an airplane after a head injury — especially one five years old — is bad. There is a theoretical risk that low oxygen tension at altitude will dilate cerebral blood vessels and even open the blood brain barrier leading to post-concussive headache or mild brain swelling. But there are no studies to substantiate this.

As for the effects of skydiving and the brain, as long as your parachute opens up, your daughter should have no problems!

That said, skydiving comes with obvious risks. If your daughter were to fall wrong and hit her head, she has a greater chance of more serious and perhaps long-term effects since she has sustained a significant brain injury in the past. It would also be prudent for your daughter to make sure she goes skydiving at a reputable skydiving facility — one that has passed accredited safety standards and has well-trained instructors.

Posted on BrainLine September 1, 2011.

Comments (11)

I had a TBI in 2015 that resulted in surgery to reduce swelling on my brain and around 2 years of rehab to get back to work. I have booked to go for a trecking vacation in Peru where I will be at most 4630m above sea level. I'm quite worried about feeling symptoms due to the altitude and wondered if anyone has had a similar experience or advice? Thanks

I can only answer part of this, but I am an experienced skydiver who did this as a hobby, and I have a Traumatic Brain Injury because of a landing that went wrong. I was jumping by myself of course, and that happened in 2013. I haven’t been skydiving since, but I would suggest you ensure you are flying tandem with an instructor for sure. My biggest fear is how my judgment about opening my parachute and landing will be effected. Just my thought not knowing how it would be the first time.

This question is for my Mom who had CSF leak and sezure on domestic flight. Her CSF surgery was a success but after that had hydrocephalus and fungal meningitis. She took 8 weeks of fungal meningitis iv therapy and right now taking through g tube. Had a shunt for hydrocephalus and wants to travel internationally as her wish is to go back to her country. Looks like her brain stem cell is most damaged or affect by fungal meningitis and want to know what are some of risk flying internationally in this condition. Her vitals r stable with medication but breathing is heavy sometime blood pressure drops and heart rate goes up to higher 100’s

Nearly two years ago I had medium concussion. Lived at approximately 500 feet above sea level, and had for all 35 years of my life... Visited Colorado a few times last year, with noticeable minimization in the time frame it took for me to adjust to the altitude. As per usual: Nose bleeds cleared in half the time, headaches, brain fog, migraines, noticeable cognitive deficits, could eventually subside more or less fully, during a 2 month timeframe... but unfortunately I got another concussion last spring before returning to CO... I've now been in Denver 3 months. Yet the elevation symptoms have yet to subside. and now it is like as though the blood-brain barrier is down because I am so affected by everything. Second-hand pot smoke ***like never before***... I feel noticeably affected by any exposure for up to 3 days. Totally ridiculous and yet it is the case. Yet more importantly, I feel as though my brain were operating at only about 25%. I've asked so many people about any possibilities of potential contraindications for those with even moderate to light brain traumas, having a delayed adaption success to higher elevations, to no avail. After a couple weekend day hikes to 10,000 Caribou, and 8,750 Evergreen, I would notice how alone I felt and how that distortion would last for days after returning from those more intensely high altitudes. Something is just different. There's just a noticeably (possibly more delayed?) response or a more sensitive natural reaction due to the sensitivity of my physical system, ever since the second concussion from 6 months ago... In response to at least one other person' mention re barometric pressure sensitivities -- And particularly when a storm is coming in and one gets insanely unavoidably sleepy, like clockwork: Wow yes!!!, that is definitely a thing!!! At least anytime I'm on the East Coast ; ). Specifically in late summer months, when the torrential downpours for weeks at a time recently began earlier this decade ... 90% Humidity feels like it's brain melting for everyone, yet that is so especially for me these days. Yes, and that low pressure zone right before storm breaks, oh my God... it's like one can't stay awake even for one's life. It's strange. The resulting mold issues are catastrophic 'n the South-East where entire towns have been built not to withstand such strange recent thunderstorm weather -- massive problems with airborne mold has ensued. And it has got to be a blood-brain barrier issue when someone reaches their age of being able to handle mold exposure; IE: falling asleep in the middle of the day if one comes home for lunch, and waking up 5 hours later, wondering how that could happen, and what the fizzyf. was happenning to them... it's like I had surpassed my tolerance for any type of antigen (mold)... and ever since then, I have too - easily even tasted the mold in certain chamomile teas, or certain packaged herbs and spices, or even a bag of hazelnuts, etc. Mold. Total bummer. And that in part brings me to (the magical life-saving-CBD friendly land of) Colorado... figuratively and literally... If the blood-brain barrier is down and can be brought down by things such as even an older TBI, specifically combined with that of current high altitude conditions, Then whether or not it is also in part due to various air pollutants, chemtrail rubbish, and countless nameless environmental pollutants in general :/, etc, Let's do our bests to take the best care of ourselves and eachother possible. Be willing to move whereever you have to move. (Even if you thought you already did.) Thanks for informing!! I appreciate those who have taken the time to share their personal experiences and informed observations about their physiological experiences. It is definitely of high value and helpful to those who are in similar shoes, considering these variables, wondering this very same question. May we all find our way for highest good. ♡♡♡ Best to You ♡♡♡

I suffered a major brain injury just over 2 years ago. I live at 4500 feet. I've been experiencing different amounts of brain fog and fatigue for the last 2 years. To function at all I require 12 hours of sleep pretty night. Before my injury I averaged 4-6 hours/night.

I am just returning from San Diego from my first family vacation in 2 years. At sea level I was almost entirely better. 8 hours of sleep was plenty. Returning to 4500 I have full on altitude sickness. I can't believe what 5000 feet of elevation does.

To the person who went sky diving after a concussion, read the book Ghost in My Brain and go see the doctors in the book. Life changing for the author and my wife who has a TBI.

I went skydiving three weeks after a pretty severe concussion.. Big big mistake. It was all planned and i thought I was in pretty good shape.. The higher we went, I knew something was wrong.. By the time we topped out at 14k my brain felt and sounded like crushing glass... I could feel my life slipping away. I jumped strapped to an instructor because I figured the fastest way back down was to jump! After landing, I knew something was really wrong.. I woke up the next day to a different life.. The altitude had blown up the first concussion so bad that it ripped nero pathways in my brain, gave me a massive secondary concussion. A subdermal compound hematoma.. I had three pages of side effects, massive memories loss... the list goes on and on.. That was six years ago and I still struggle in silence every day of my life.... Plus if go higher than four thousand feet it can take a week before I feel somewhat normal again.. Whenever I take road trips I have to check elevations.. I will never get to visit Colorado.. For whomever to say that "no conclusive studies have been done" is beyond shocking.. Blessing to all that fight the good fight everyday with a TBI

I lived near sea level almost all my life. Had a TBI at sea level. A year later, we moved to 5,000 ft above sea level, and I became severely disabled with chronic severe headaches, and cognitive and behavioral issues along with other neurological challenges the whole time we were there. I also had to be on pain relievers constantly. After five years of that, we finally moved back to sea level, and all the symptoms immediately immensely improved.

Human barometer is correct. Just briefly driving through 3000+ altitude caused severe headache, nausea, eye pain and slurred speech after having lived at sea level and sustaining a TBI. I had leg swelling too, something that never occurred before. I had traveled many times to higher altitudes without symptoms pre TBI. Can a person gradually adjust with TBI to living at higher altitude? I notice barometric pressure changes even from thunderstorms now and it's not pleasant. I get super sleepy.

I have an ABI and 4 years later did a ski season and was living at an altitude of 2100m (one mile = 1600m, I think?), had big trouble sleeping, bad restless right leg syndrome and other weird neuro stuff, I thought it was permanent deterioration but as soon as I went down to 900 meters it all disappeared. Now I'm living by the med and because my bedroom was 33 C at night I again got the same awful neuro stuff. So in my experience altitude and too hot make me far worse. Need cool bedroom and if skiing to sleep not too high up.

I live a mile high, and see a very prominent NeuroPsych in Denver. When I asked him if he had heard from his patients about the pain associated with temperature fluxuations a mile high, he said...OH about 496. No studies yet. I do know this, many friends with Brain Injuries are human barometors, we feel the weather shift. Me, personally, plane rides are horrible after my TBI, and I traveled A LOT. I urge MORE studies to be done on this, as I will be moving to sea level soon if things do not improve