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Spirometry (meaning the measuring of breath) is the most common of the pulmonary function tests (PFTs), measuring lung function, specifically the amount (volume) and/or speed (flow) of air that can be inhaled and exhaled. Spirometry is an important tool used for generating pneumotachographs, which are helpful in assessing conditions such as asthma, pulmonary fibrosis, cystic fibrosis, and COPD.

Spirometry is indicated for the following reasons:

  • to diagnose or manage asthma
  • to detect respiratory disease in patients presenting with symptoms of breathlessness, and to distinguish respiratory from cardiac disease as the cause
  • to measure bronchial responsiveness in patients suspected of having asthma
  • to diagnose and differentiate between obstructive lung disease and restrictive lung disease
  • to follow the natural history of disease in respiratory conditions
  • to assess of impairment from occupational asthma
  • to identify those at risk from pulmonary barotrauma while scuba diving
  • to conduct pre-operative risk assessment before anaesthesia or cardiothoracic surgery
  • to measure response to treatment of conditions which spirometry detects

The spirometry test is performed using a device called a spirometer, which comes in several different varieties. Most spirometers display the following graphs, called spirograms:

  • a volume-time curve, showing volume (litres) along the Y-axis and time (seconds) along the X-axis
  • a flow-volume loop, which graphically depicts the rate of airflow on the Y-axis and the total volume inspired or expired on the X-axis

The basic forced volume vital capacity (FVC) test varies slightly depending on the equipment used.Generally, the patient is asked to take the deepest breath they can, and then exhale into the sensor as hard as possible, for as long as possible, preferably at least 6 seconds. It is sometimes directly followed by a rapid inhalation (inspiration), in particular when assessing possible upper airway obstruction. Sometimes, the test will be preceded by a period of quiet breathing in and out from the sensor (tidal volume), or the rapid breath in (forced inspiratory part) will come before the forced exhalation.

During the test, soft nose clips may be used to prevent air escaping through the nose. Filter mouthpieces may be used to prevent the spread of microorganisms.

Limitations of test
The manoeuvre is highly dependent on patient cooperation and effort, and is normally repeated at least three times to ensure reproducibility. Since results are dependent on patient cooperation, FVC can only be underestimated, never overestimated.

Due to the patient cooperation required, spirometry can only be used on children old enough to comprehend and follow the instructions given (6 years old or more), and only on patients who are able to understand and follow instructions — thus, this test is not suitable for patients who are unconscious, heavily sedated, or have limitations that would interfere with vigorous respiratory efforts. Other types of lung function tests are available for infants and unconscious persons.

Another major limitation is the fact that many intermittent or mild asthmatics have normal spirometry between acute exacerbations, limiting spirometry’s usefulness as a diagnostic. It is more useful as a monitoring tool: a sudden decrease in FEV1 or other spirometric measure in the same patient can signal worsening control, even if the raw value is still normal. Patients are encouraged to record their personal best measures.

Related tests
Spirometry can also be part of a bronchial challenge test, used to determine bronchial hyper responsiveness to either rigorous exercise, inhalation of cold/dry air, or with a pharmaceutical agent such as methacholine or histamine.

Sometimes, to assess the reversibility of a particular condition, a bronchodilator is administered before performing another round of tests for comparison. This is commonly referred to as a reversibility test, or a post bronchodilator test (Post BD), and is an important part in diagnosing asthma versus COPD.

Other complementary lung functions tests include plethysmography and nitrogen washout.

The most common parameters measured in spirometry are Vital capacity (VC), Forced vital capacity (FVC), Forced expiratory volume (FEV) at timed intervals of 0.5, 1.0 (FEV1), 2.0, and 3.0 seconds, forced expiratory flow 25–75% (FEF 25–75) and maximal voluntary ventilation (MVV),[5] also known as Maximum breathing capacity.[6] Other tests may be performed in certain situations.

Results are usually given in both raw data (litres, litres per second) and percent predicted—the test result as a percent of the "predicted values" for the patients of similar characteristics (height, age, sex, and sometimes race and weight). The interpretation of the results can vary depending on the physician and the source of the predicted values. Generally speaking, results nearest to 100% predicted are the most normal, and results over 80% are often considered normal. Multiple publications of predicted values have been published and may be calculated online based on age, sex, weight and ethnicity. However, review by a doctor is necessary for accurate diagnosis of any individual situation.

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