Pulse oximetry: understanding its basic principles facilitates appreciation of its limitations

Respir Med. 2013 Jun;107(6):789-99. doi: 10.1016/j.rmed.2013.02.004. Epub 2013 Mar 13.


Pulse oximetry has revolutionized the ability to monitor oxygenation in a continuous, accurate, and non-invasive fashion. Despite its ubiquitous use, it is our impression and supported by studies that many providers do not know the basic principles behind its mechanism of function. This knowledge is important because it provides the conceptual basis of appreciating its limitations and recognizing when pulse oximeter readings may be erroneous. In this review, we discuss how pulse oximeters are able to distinguish oxygenated hemoglobin from deoxygenated hemoglobin and how they are able to recognize oxygen saturation only from the arterial compartment of blood. Based on these principles, we discuss the various conditions that can cause spurious readings and the mechanisms underlying them.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Diagnostic Errors
  • Fetal Hemoglobin / analysis
  • Hemoglobins, Abnormal / analysis
  • Humans
  • Oximetry / instrumentation
  • Oximetry / methods*
  • Oxygen / blood
  • Oxyhemoglobins / analysis
  • Partial Pressure


  • Hemoglobins, Abnormal
  • Oxyhemoglobins
  • Fetal Hemoglobin
  • Oxygen