Nasal high-flow therapy reduces work of breathing compared with oxygen during sleep in COPD and smoking controls: a prospective observational study

J Appl Physiol (1985). 2017 Jan 1;122(1):82-88. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00279.2016. Epub 2016 Nov 4.


Patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) endure excessive resistive and elastic loads leading to chronic respiratory failure. Oxygen supplementation corrects hypoxemia but is not expected to reduce mechanical loads. Nasal high-flow (NHF) therapy supports breathing by reducing dead space, but it is unclear how it affects mechanical loads of patients with COPD. The objective of this study was to compare the effects of low-flow oxygen and NHF therapy on ventilation and work of breathing (WOB) in patients with COPD and controls during sleep. Patients with COPD (n = 12) and controls (n = 6) were recruited and submitted to polysomnography to measure sleep parameters and ventilation in response to administration of oxygen and NHF. A subset of six patients also had an esophageal catheter inserted for the purpose of measuring WOB. Patients with COPD had similar minute ventilation (V̇e) but lower tidal volumes than matched controls. With oxygen, [Formula: see text]was increased and V̇e was reduced in both controls and patients with COPD, but there was an increase in transcutaneous CO2 levels. NHF produced a greater reduction in V̇e and was associated with a reduction in CO2 levels. Although NHF halved WOB, oxygen produced only a minor reduction in this parameter. We conclude that oxygen produced little change in WOB, which was associated with CO2 elevations. On the other hand, NHF produced a large reduction in V̇e and WOB with a concomitant decrease in CO2 levels. Our data indicate that NHF improves alveolar ventilation during sleep compared with oxygen and room air in patients with COPD and therefore can decrease their cost of breathing.

New & noteworthy: Nasal high-flow (NHF) therapy can support ventilation in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease during sleep by decreasing the work of breathing and improving CO2 levels. On the other hand, oxygen supplementation corrects hypoxemia, but it produces only a minimal reduction in work of breathing and is associated with increased CO2 levels. Therefore, NHF can be a useful method to assist ventilation in patients with increased respiratory mechanical loads.

Keywords: COPD; nasal high flow; oxygen; sleep; work of breathing.

Publication types

  • Observational Study

MeSH terms

  • Carbon Dioxide / metabolism
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Nasal Mucosa / metabolism*
  • Oxygen / metabolism*
  • Prospective Studies
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive / metabolism*
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive / physiopathology
  • Pulmonary Ventilation / physiology
  • Respiration
  • Respiratory Insufficiency / metabolism
  • Sleep / physiology*
  • Smoking / metabolism*
  • Smoking / physiopathology
  • Tidal Volume / physiology
  • Work of Breathing / physiology*


  • Carbon Dioxide
  • Oxygen