Background: Computerized analysis of breath sounds has relied on human auditory perception as the reference standard for identifying crackles. In this study, we tested the human audibility of crackles by superimposing artificial clicks on recorded breath sounds and having physicians listen to the recordings to see if they could identify the crackles.
Objectives: To establish the audibility of simulated crackles introduced in breath sounds of different intensity, to study the effects of crackle characteristics on their audibility, and to investigate crackle detection within and between observers.
Methods: Fine, medium, and coarse crackles with large and small amplitude were synthesized by computer software. Waveform parameters were based on published characteristics of lung sound crackles. The amplitude for small crackles was defined as just above the threshold of audibility for simulated crackles inserted in sound recorded during breath hold. Simulated crackles were then superimposed on breath sounds recorded at 0 L/s (breath hold), 1 L/s, and 2 L/s airflow. Five physicians listened during playback on two separate occasions to determine if crackles could be heard and to calculate the interobserver and intraobserver variations.
Results: Failed detection of crackles was significantly more common in the following conditions: (1) background breath sounds had higher intensity (2 L/s airflow) compared to lower intensity (1 L/s), (2) crackle type was coarse or medium compared to fine, and (3) crackle amplitude was small compared to large. Both intraobserver and interobserver agreements were high (kappa > 0.6).
Relevance: The validation of automated techniques for crackle detection in lung sound analysis should not rely on auscultation as the only reference. Detection of crackles is facilitated when patients take slow, deep breaths that generate little breath sounds.