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What is Aerospace Medicine?

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  • Written By: Bill C.
  • Edited By: J.T. Gale
  • Last Modified Date: 30 August 2016
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Aerospace medicine is a branch of medical science that specializes in preventive care and medical treatment for virtually anyone who flies in an aircraft or spacecraft. The area expanding from the earth's atmosphere to outer space is generally considered aerospace. Military physicians specializing in aerospace medicine are called flight surgeons, whereas civilian doctors in the specialty are known as aviation medical examiners. A key preventive-care responsibility of these medical professionals is to conduct physical screenings for pilots to certify that they have no medical condition that might impair their ability to safely operate a flight vehicle. Medical services of aerospace medicine physicians range from treating minor problems, such as ear blockage in an infant caused by flying at high altitude in a commercial aircraft, to handling extreme medical emergencies of astronauts aboard a spacecraft in outer space.

Physical screenings certifying that pilots are fit for flight generally are essential to safe airspace everywhere. Aerospace medicine physicals examine pilots for medical conditions, such as epilepsy and color blindness, that could seriously hamper safe flight. Since flight crews are at high risk for certain serious diseases due to inconsistent work hours, irregular sleeping patterns, unhealthy diets, and high stress, examining physicians are also on the lookout for symptoms of heart conditions and diabetes — the effects of these diseases can cause extreme in-flight medical emergencies.

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Aerospace medicine physicians treat virtually any type of condition associated with air travel. They are uniquely qualified, however, to provide medical attention to crew members who routinely undergo the most extreme conditions of flight while aboard military jets and spacecraft. Such flight crew members are particularly susceptible to ailments resulting from exposure to extreme temperature and noise, violent vibrations during take-offs and landings, low levels of atmospheric pressure, radiation, high g-forces when accelerating or decelerating, weightlessness, and disruption of sleep cycles due to inconsistent intervals between day to night.

Professionals in the field of aerospace medicine include physicians, surgeons, psychologists, nurses, human factors engineers, biomedical specialists, environmental health practitioners, and industrial hygienists. Patients include everyday aircraft passengers, flight crews and their families, astronauts, air traffic controllers, and patients transported by air rescue responders. Since deep-sea and high-altitude conditions are often quite similar to the extreme stresses of aerospace, aerospace medicine specialists are sometimes called upon to handle medical emergencies for mountain climbers and undersea workers, as well. Aerospace medicine professionals are typically employed by the military services, companies in the aerospace industry, spaceflight centers, flight regulatory agencies, commercial airlines, and academic institutions.

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