Changes in Altitude Cause Unintended Insulin Delivery From Insulin Pumps

Mechanisms and implications

  1. Donald G. Anderson, FRACP1
  1. 1John Hunter Children’s Hospital, University of Newcastle and the Hunter Medical Research Institute, Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia
  2. 2Gippsland Paediatrics Diabetes Unit, Sale, Victoria, Australia
  1. Corresponding author: Bruce R. King, bruce.king{at}


OBJECTIVE Children and adults with type 1 diabetes who receive insulin pump therapy have reported hypoglycemia during air travel. We studied the effects of atmospheric pressure on insulin pump delivery.

RESEARCH DESIGN AND METHODS Ten insulin pumps were connected to capillary tubes. The effects of changes in ambient pressure on insulin delivery, bubble formation, bubble size, and cartridge plunger movement were analyzed.

RESULTS During a flight (200 mmHg pressure decrease), excess insulin delivery of 0.623% of the cartridge volume occurred (P < 0.001, Student t test). In hypobaric chamber studies, bubbles developed in the insulin when the pressure decreased and displaced the insulin out of the cartridge. Pre-existing bubbles changed in size consistent with Boyle law. Cartridge plunger movement did not occur in normal flight conditions but did occur when catastrophic plane depressurization was mimicked.

CONCLUSIONS Atmospheric pressure reduction causes predictable, unintended insulin delivery in pumps by bubble formation and expansion of existing bubbles.

  • Received January 21, 2011.
  • Accepted May 25, 2011.

Readers may use this article as long as the work is properly cited, the use is educational and not for profit, and the work is not altered. See for details.