Background: Cough and sputum production are common in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and are associated with adverse clinical outcomes. Airway clearance techniques (ACTs) aim to remove sputum from the lungs, however evidence of their efficacy during acute exacerbations of COPD (AECOPD) or stable disease is unclear.
Objectives: To assess the safety and efficacy of ACTs for individuals with AECOPD and stable COPD.
Search methods: We searched the Cochrane Airways Group Specialised Register of trials from inception to October 2011, and PEDro in October 2009.
Selection criteria: We included randomised parallel trials and randomised cross-over trials which compared an ACT to no treatment, cough or sham ACT in participants with investigator-defined COPD, emphysema or chronic bronchitis.
Data collection and analysis: Two review authors independently conducted data extraction and assessed the risk of bias. We analysed data from studies of AECOPD separately from stable COPD, and classified the effects of ACTs as 'immediate' (less than 24 hours), 'short-term' (24 hours to eight weeks) or 'long-term' (greater than eight weeks). One subgroup analysis compared the effects of ACTs that use positive expiratory pressure (PEP) to those that do not.
Main results: Twenty-eight studies on 907 participants were included in the review. Study sample size was generally small (range 5 to 96 people) and overall quality was generally poor due to inadequate blinding and allocation procedures. Meta-analyses were limited by heterogeneity of outcome measurement and inadequate reporting of data.In people experiencing AECOPD, ACT use was associated with small but significant short-term reductions in the need for increased ventilatory assistance (odds ratio (OR) 0.21, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.05 to 0.85; data from four studies on 171 people), the duration of ventilatory assistance (mean difference (MD) -2.05 days, 95% CI -2.60 to -1.51; mean duration for control groups seven days; data from two studies on 54 people) and hospital length of stay (MD -0.75 days, 95% CI -1.38 to -0.11; mean duration for control groups nine days; one study on 35 people). Data from a limited number of studies revealed no significant long-term benefits of ACTs on the number of exacerbations or hospitalisations, nor any short-term beneficial effect on health-related quality of life (HRQoL) as measured by the St. George's Respiratory Questionnaire (SGRQ) total score (MD -2.30, 95% CI -11.80 to 7.20; one study on 59 people).In people with stable COPD, data from single studies revealed no significant short-term benefit of ACTs on the number of people with exacerbations (OR 3.21, 95% CI 0.12 to 85.20; one study on 30 people), significant short-term improvements in HRQoL as measured by the SGRQ total score (MD -6.10, 95% CI -8.93 to -3.27; one study on 15 people) and a reduced long-term need for respiratory-related hospitalisation (OR 0.27, 95% CI 0.08 to 0.95; one study on 35 participants).The magnitude of effect of PEP-based ACTs on the need for increased ventilatory assistance and hospital length of stay was greater than for non-PEP ACTs, however we found no statistically significant subgroup differences. There was one report of vomiting during treatment with postural drainage and head-down tilt.
Authors' conclusions: Evidence from this review indicates that airway clearance techniques are safe for individuals with COPD and confer small beneficial effects on some clinical outcomes. Consideration may be given to the use of airway clearance techniques for patients with COPD in both acute and stable disease, however current studies suggest that the benefits achieved may be small.