The Use Of A Spirometer To Detect Shortness Of Breath

By Serena Price

Shortness of breath is one of the main complaints that sends people to the doctor's office. One of the tools used to help diagnose the cause of breathlessness is called a spirometer. This is a kind of pulmonary function monitor (PFM) and measures the volume of air inspired and expired through the lungs. The printed output from the device is a graph, and this can indicate whether the breathing dysfunction is restrictive or obstructive. Spirometers are constructed differently to enable different strategies for measuring the movement of air (pressure transducers, ultrasound, water gauge).

Lung function tests are utilized to eliminate the presence of serious pulmonary conditions such as asthma, emphysema and bronchitis. They are also performed to assess the influence on the lungs of medications or ambient contaminants, to help determine the cause of breathlessness and to evaluate the progress of treatments. Lung function tests are also performed before surgery on the lungs to take benchmark measurements of lung activity.

Noted Roman physician, Claudius Galen, was the first to assess lung function. Some time during the second century AD, he got a boy to breath in and out into a bladder. Years later, people used inverted bell jars in water. Modern instruments include whole body plethysmography, peak flow meters and a device called a pneumotachometer.

According to the Mayo Clinic, shortness of breath may be defined as an intense chest tightening and a feeling of being suffocated. It may be confined to a single episode or it may become chronic. While it is important to rule out any serious problems underlying breathlessness, in most cases the root cause is harmless and easily curable.

There are a handful of "red flag" signs which, when they occur at the same time as breathlessness, may indicate a serious underlying condition. These include persistent tiredness and pallor, a chronic wheeze or cough, ankle swelling, a pain that gets worse with exercise, breathlessness that worsens when lying down, any other unusual or recurring symptoms. A history of working with hazardous chemical fumes, asbestos, wood dust or in a coal mine is also something worth mentioning to the doctor.

Asthma, a chronic disease of the airways, is somewhat more serious. According to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia, 18.9 million non-institutionalized adults have asthma at any one time. This represents 8.2 percent of that population.

Once all serious problems have been eliminated from consideration, many cases of shortness of breath can be attributed to one of two causes, muscle knots (aka trigger points) or dysfunctional breathing habits together with weak muscles. Treatment includes exercises to strengthen the muscles. For trigger points, therapy involves massage, which is almost always successful.

Invented shortly after Christ walked the Earth, the spirometer is a handy tool for diagnosing the cause of shortness of breath. It can determine the presence of abnormal ventilation, but further tests are often required to eliminate from consideration conditions like asthma, emphysema and bronchitis, among others. Most cases of breathlessness stem from an easily treatable condition, either trigger points, dysfunctional breathing patterns or a combination of the two.

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