Technology often progresses and evolves so quickly that its hard to keep up. Situations we might never have thought possible now are, as we push ourselves deeper into the vast frontier of space, expanding the scope of healthcare to beyond just Earth's orbit.
In late July, a 3-person crew launched from a port in Kazakhstan into outer space. They have docked at the International Space Station (ISS) where they will spend the next 6 months. With mankind testing the limits of outer space travel, there are several health issues regarding prolonged stays in gravity-free environments that must be taken into consideration for the safety of these galactic explorers.
The International Space Station In Orbit. Photo from NASA
How Will Space Medicine Differ From Earth Medicine?
1. Organ Disorientation In space, your organs may shift to different positions. On earth, gravity causes your internal organs to settle into predictable positions, so a doctor knows exactly where to look when trying to locate your liver. But in a zero gravity environment organs tend to become displaced slightly, usually moving upwards. The disorientation of internal organs can also cause complications by compressing delicate organs such as your lungs, heart, or stomach.
2. Bone Integrity When on earth, gravitational forces push down on you constantly, meaning your bones must do continual work to stay structurally strong. But if you take gravity out of the picture, your bones don't have to do much work at all, and tend to decalcify and weaken over time. Consistent exercise while in space can help counteract this a bit, but there is no way to fully reverse the weakening of bones in space.
3. Eye Problems Eye infections and irritation are much more common in space and zero-gravity environments because debris, dust, and other particles remain suspended in the air, floating around you rather than settling as in a gravitational setting. Many astronauts who have been in space for extended periods of time have also experienced worse visibility even once they return to earth. This is due to body fluids moving upward from the rest of the body into the head, which puts pressure on the optic nerve and can even change the shape of the eyeball.
A NASA agent undergoing a dental exam. Image from NASA.
4. Complication Of Simple Procedures If you're going to need stitches, try to avoid it in space. While sutures and other simple medical procedures are commonplace and easy to perform on earth, this is not so in a zero-gravity environment. Instruments and equipment that would normally be arranged on a tray in a sterile field won't stay put in space - they will be floating around, bumping into things, and making it extremely difficult to perform sterile procedures.
5. Digestive IssuesOur gastrointestinal system needs a little help from gravity in order to work properly. One astronaut even said that the best part of his space travels was finally landing on the moon - because even in 1/6th of earth's gravity he was finally able to, ahem, do his business while he had not been able to for days in zero-gravity.
As we continue to study the effects of long-term stays in zero-gravity environments, our knowledge of how to address these health issues will improve. Regardless, the field of medicine in space will undoubtedly look different than medicine here on earth.