Acclimatization to chronic intermittent hypoxia in mine workers: a challenge to mountain medicine in Chile
In the past two decades, Chile has developed intense mining activity in the Andes mountain range, whose altitude is over 4,000 meters above sea level. It is estimated that a workforce population of over 55,000 is exposed to high altitude hypobaric hypoxia. The miners work under shift systems which vary from 4 to 20 days at the worksite followed by rest days at sea level, in a cycle repeated for several years. This Chronic Intermittent Hypoxia (CIH) constitutes an unusual condition for workers involving a series of changes at the physiological, cellular and molecular levels attempting to compensate for the decrease in the environmental partial pressure of oxygen (PO2). The mine worker must become acclimatized to CIH, and consequently undergoes an acute acclimatization process when he reaches the worksite and an acute reverse process when he reaches sea level. We have observed that after a period of 3 to 8 years of CIH exposure workers acclimatize well, and evidence from our studies and those of others indicates that CIH induces acute and chronic multisystem adjustments which are effective in offsetting the reduced availability of oxygen at high altitudes. The aims of this review are to summarize findings of the physiological responses to CIH exposure, highlighting outstanding issues in the field.