Background: Hypoxemia is a common complication of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and a major factor in patients' prognosis and quality of life. The response to exercise has been evaluated by various means but no standardization has been accepted.
Objectives: To suggest a simple outpatient technique for evaluating the response of arterial oxygen saturation to exercise for use as a marker of disease severity.
Patients and methods: Ninety-six patients with various degrees of COPD were divided into three groups: mild (forced expiratory volume in 1 sec > 65%), moderate (FEV1 between 50 and 65%), and severe (FEV1 < 50%). Using continuous oximeter recording we measured oxygen saturation during 15 steps of climbing, and quantified oxygen desaturation by measuring the "desaturation area," defined as the area under the curve of oxygen saturation from the beginning of exercise through the lowest desaturation point and until after recovery to the baseline level of oxygen percent saturation. Desaturation was correlated to spirometry, lung gas volumes, blood gas analysis, and 6 min walking distance.
Results: A good correlation was found between severity of COPD and baseline SaO2, lowest SaO2, recovery time, and desaturation area. A negative correlation was found between desaturation area and FEV1 (r = -0.65), FEV1/forced vital capacity (r = -0.58), residual volume to total lung capacity (r = 0.52), and diffusing lung capacity for carbon monoxide (r = -0.52). In stepwise multiple regression analysis only FEV1 correlated significantly to desaturation area. A good correlation was noted between 6 min walking distance and desaturation area with the 15 steps technique (r = 0.56).
Conclusions: In patients with severe COPD, arterial hypoxemia during exercise can be assessed by simple 15 steps oximetry. This method can serve both as a marker for disease severity and to determine the need for oxygen supplementation.