How I Practice

High-altitude medicine: One DO’s journey takes him to top of the world

Phillip Arnold, DO, is a volunteer physician for the U.S. Ski Team and has helped provide medical support for several high-altitude treks.


The base camp of Mount Everest and the sidelines of a small-town high school gym in northern Wisconsin are just two of the many locales osteopathic medicine has led Phillip Arnold, DO. Inspired to enter the field by a Montana DO he met while ski-bumming after college, Dr. Arnold has since served as an associate medical team member on expeditions to Mount Everest, Mount Kilimanjaro and Machu Picchu and serves as a volunteer physician for the U.S. Ski Team.

As an attending doctor in family and sports medicine at the Ministry Door County Medical Center in Fish Creek, Wisconsin, Dr. Arnold also works with sports teams at the local high school, where he’s known many of the athletes since they were first-graders. In this edited interview, he discusses his wilderness medicine experiences and the benefits of his osteopathic training.

Mount Everest expedition

My first experience with high-altitude medicine was in 2001, when I was a fourth-year student at Des Moines (Iowa) University College of Osteopathic Medicine. Steve Gipe, DO, who had introduced me to osteopathic medicine when I was ski-bumming in Montana, invited me to join a Mount Everest expedition supporting Erik Weihenmayer, an athlete who is blind. Since I was a student, I wasn’t part of the group heading for the summit; I got as high as base camp, which is at an elevation of 17,600 feet. Two months later, Erik became the only blind person to summit Mount Everest.

Phillip Arnold, DO, accompanied the U.S. Ski Team to a training camp in Zermatt, Switzerland.

The trip was an eye-opening experience. Primary care is a big part of high-altitude medicine: you’re taking care of bumps and scrapes, gastrointestinal illness or people who aren’t acclimatizing well to the altitude. But even at base camp, you’re several days’ walk from any medical facility.

There are some high-altitude clinics in the Himalayan valleys, but it’s not like a clinic in the U.S. where there are plenty of supplies and medications and a comfortable environment. The clinics can be very cold inside, and everything they have is delivered by helicopter, by a porter or on the back of an animal. If someone starts to get really sick, you have to call a helicopter—and if there’s a storm and helicopters can’t land, you’re trying everything you can to keep the person going until he or she can be evacuated.

U.S. Ski Team physician

I’ve been a volunteer physician for the U.S. Ski Team since 2008 and usually do two or three trips with them each year. I mostly care for the men’s and women’s moguls skiers, but I’ve also worked with the snowboarding team and athletes who compete in ski halfpipe and ski slopestyle races.

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This January I’ll be providing medical coverage for U.S. Ski Team athletes at the X Games in Aspen, Colorado. Team physicians provide 24/7 care for ski team athletes, coaches and sometimes their families. Sometimes we take care of other countries’ athletes as well; you’ll get a knock on your door at 8 p.m., and it’ll be someone from the Japanese team with a knee injury or someone on the Swedish team with a GI illness. It’s like a little world microcosm on those trips; there are so many different countries represented, but everybody always gets along.

The DO difference

As a DO I got a world-class education, from the classroom to my rotation to my eventual residency and fellowships. There’s not a day in my practice that I don’t think back to the osteopathic manipulative treatment lab in med school where we learned how to really, properly examine an elbow or shoulder or back. The training we receive in osteopathic manipulative medicine techniques is just unparalleled in terms of our ability to evaluate musculoskeletal injuries.


  1. ADAM

    I really liked the article. I was hoping to learn more about DO. Two weeks ago I started having pain in my left biceps, than the pain shifted to my right upper back and right triceps, I went to my main Dr who did not give it any importance. I then went to another P.A, who gave me a muscle relaxant and a pain killer, with no success. I then went to the chiropr who gave me acupuncture, bone adjusting and scheduled several visits but the pain never went way. I went to the emergency unit at a hospital, they gave me oxycodon and a steroid, I took the oxycodon, no success. I did not want to take the steroid I ten went on WebMD and so all the different options I had, especially when I was still in pain. I was very happy to see the option of icing the painful area. I immediately knew it will work and it did. Now I wat to take care of it the best way possible and I suspect everyone for business interests rather than seeing me cured,except my P.A . I realized by researching the issue that it was due to cerebral vertebral issues. I also noticed that when I lay down, most of the pain goes, is the pain has to do with gravity? I look forward to receiving your advice. I will trust your advice. Also from the summarized explanation of DOs, it says that DO addresses the whole person not the sole lesion by itself. It seems the same as Homeopathic medicine. What is the difference? Can I also be treated with homeopathic medicine?

    Thank you


    1. Gabrielle

      Hey Adam-
      I’m a DO and I can tell you a few things. First, it definitely seems like you should fine one for your shoulder. OMM is different from chiropractic manipulation in that we learn tons of techniques to treat muscles or bones. We go through different schooling and just generally have different treatment options. Second. We are not homeopathic doctors. We are parallel to MDs, but we also have OMM training. We tend to focus more on the whole patient, and we are often open to homeopathic treatments and such, but that varies based on the doctor. Hope that helps a little.

  2. Michael Gollotto D.O.

    Phil it was a great article … it makes me want to quit and snowboard for a few years. Too late?
    My osteopathic wife Katie works with US ski team too hopefully we will meet in the future!

  3. Dawn Dillinger,DO

    What a great article to read! Keep up the good work Phil! It’s always fun to read about osteopathic physicians making an impact and it is especially great when I know the physician!

  4. Highlander Sherpa

    It is always great to read about people with similar interests as mine. As a primary/emergency care physician working in the only permanent hospital in the Everest region, I agree how different it can be treating a patient at high altitude vs a city-clinic. While we strive to provide the best primary care treatment at our facility, there are still some limitations. Nevertheless, providing care for many locals as well as the trekkers/mountaineers who travel for hours or even days to reach us makes us more compassionate at work.

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