Pulmonary function testing

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Pulmonary function testing
Medical diagnostics
OPS-301 code1-71

Pulmonary Function Testing (PFT) is a complete evaluation of the respiratory system including patient history, physical examinations, chest x-ray examinations, arterial blood gas analysis, and tests of pulmonary function. The primary purpose of pulmonary function testing is to identify the severity of pulmonary impairment.[1] Pulmonary function testing has diagnostic and therapeutic roles and helps clinicians answer some general questions about patients with lung disease. PFT's are normally performed by a specialist technician.


Pulmonary function testing is a diagnostic and management tool used for a variety of reasons.

Pediatric neuromuscular disorders

Neuromuscular disorders such as Duchenne muscular dystrophy are associated with gradual loss of muscle function over time. Involvement of respiratory muscles results in poor ability to cough and decreased ability to breathe well and leads to atelectasis (the inability of the lungs to gain oxygen) and an overall insufficiency in lung strength.[2] A combination of reduced lung compliance caused by generalized and widespread microatelectasis and chest wall deformity caused by increased chest wall compliance results in increased work of breathing and chronic respiratory insufficiency.[3] Musculoskeletal deformities such as kyphoscoliosis contribute to restrictive lung disease.

Pulmonary function testing in patients with neuromuscular disorders helps to evaluate the respiratory status of patients at the time of diagnosis, monitor their progress and course, evaluate them for possible surgery, and gives an overall idea of the prognosis.[4]

Other indications



Spirometry includes tests of pulmonary mechanics – measurements of FVC, FEV1, FEF values, forced inspiratory flow rates (FIFs), and MVV. Measuring pulmonary mechanics assesses the ability of the lungs to move large volumes of air quickly through the airways to identify airway obstruction.

The measurements taken by the spirometry device are used to generate a pneumotachograph that can help to assess lung conditions such as: asthma, pulmonary fibrosis, cystic fibrosis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Physicians may also use the test results to diagnose bronchial hyperresponsiveness to exercise, cold air, or pharmaceutical agents.[5]

Complications of spirometry

Spirometry is a safe procedure; however, there is cause for concern regarding untoward reactions. The value of the test data should be weighed against potential hazards. Some complications have been reported, including pneumothorax, increased intracranial pressure, syncope, chest pain, paroxysmal coughing, nosocomial infections, oxygen desaturation, and bronchospasm. '

Lung volumes

There are four lung volumes and four lung capacities. A lung capacity consists of two or more lung volumes. The lung volumes are tidal volume (VT), inspiratory reserve volume (IRV), expiratory reserve volume (ERV), and residual volume (RV). The four lung capacities are total lung capacity (TLC), inspiratory capacity (IC), functional residual capacity (FRC) and vital capacity (VC).

Maximal respiratory pressures

Measurement of maximal inspiratory and expiratory pressures is indicated whenever there is an unexplained decrease in vital capacity or respiratory muscle weakness is suspected clinically. Maximal inspiratory pressure (MIP) is the maximal pressure that can be produced by the patient trying to inhale through a blocked mouthpiece. Maximal expiratory pressure (MEP) is the maximal pressure measured during forced expiration (with cheeks bulging) through a blocked mouthpiece after a full inhalation. Repeated measurements of MIP and MEP are useful in following the course of patients with neuromuscular disorders.

Diffusing capacity

Measurement of the single-breath diffusing capacity for carbon monoxide (DLCO) is a fast and safe tool in the evaluation of both restrictive and obstructive lung disease.

Oxygen desaturation during exercise

The six-minute walk test is a good index of physical function and therapeutic response in patients with chronic lung disease, such as COPD or idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis[6][7][8]

Arterial blood gases

Arterial blood gases (ABGs) are a helpful measurement in pulmonary function testing in selected patients. The primary role of measuring ABGs in individuals that are healthy and stable is to confirm hypoventilation when it is suspected on the basis of medical history, such as respiratory muscle weakness or advanced COPD.

An elevated serum hydrogencarbonate level, or chronic hypoxemia. ABGs also provide a more detailed assessment of the severity of hypoxemia in patients who have low normal oxyhemoglobin saturation.


Helium Dilution

The helium dilution technique for measuring lung volumes uses a closed, rebreathing circuit.[9] This technique is based on the assumptions that a known volume and concentration of helium in air begin in the closed spirometer, that the patient has no helium in their lungs, and that an equilibration of helium can occur between the spirometer and the lungs.

Nitrogen Washout

The nitrogen washout technique uses a non-rebreathing open circuit. The technique is based on the assumptions that the nitrogen concentration in the lungs is 78% and in equilibrium with the atmosphere, that the patient inhales 100% oxygen and that the oxygen replaces all of the nitrogen in the lungs.[10]


The plethysmography technique applies Boyle's law and uses measurements of volume and pressure changes to determine lung volume, assuming temperature is constant.[11]

Interpretation of tests

Professional societies such as the American Thoracic Society/ European Respiratory Society have published guidelines regarding conduct and interpretation of pulmonary function testing to ensure standardization and uniformity in performance of tests. The interpretation of tests depends on comparing the patients values to published normals from previous studies. Deviation from guidelines can result in false-positive or false negative test results. Mohanka MR et al. recently demonstrated that only a small minority of pulmonary function laboratories followed published guidelines for spirometry, lung volumes and diffusing capacity in 2012. Ref. A survey of practices of pulmonary function interpretation in laboratories in Northeast Ohio Mohanka MR, et al. Chest. 2012;141(4):1040-1046


Changes in lung volumes and capacities are generally consistent with the pattern of impairment. TLC, FRC and RV increase with obstructive lung diseases and decrease with restrictive impairment.


  1. Pulmonary terms and symbols: a report of the ACCP-ATS Joint Committee on Pulmonary Nomenclature, Chest 67:583, 1975
  2. Finder JD, Birnkrant D, Carl J, et al. Respiratory care of the patients with Duchenne muscular dystrophy: ATS consensus statement. Am J Respir Crit Care Med.2004;170 (4):456– 465
  3. Wang CH, Finkel RS, Bertini ES, et al. Consensus statement for standard of care in spinal muscular atrophy. J Child Neurol.2007;22 (8):1027–1049
  4. Sharma GD (2009). "Pulmonary function testing in neuromuscular disorders". Pediatrics. 123 Suppl 4: S219–21. doi:10.1542/peds.2008-2952D. PMID 19420147.
  5. Pulmonary Function Test in New York, Article. June 2010. Dr. Marina Gafanovich, MD - 1550 York Ave, New York NY 10028 - (212) 249-6218. NYC Pulmonary FUnction Test.
  6. Enright PL (2003). "The six-minute walk test". Respir Care. 48 (8): 783–5. PMID 12890299.
  7. Swigris JJ, Wamboldt FS, Behr J, du Bois RM, King TE, Raghu G; et al. (2010). "The 6 minute walk in idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis: longitudinal changes and minimum important difference". Thorax. 65 (2): 173–7. doi:10.1136/thx.2009.113498. PMC 3144486. PMID 19996335. Explicit use of et al. in: |author= (help)CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  8. ATS Committee on Proficiency Standards for Clinical Pulmonary Function Laboratories (2002). "ATS statement: guidelines for the six-minute walk test". Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 166 (1): 111–7. doi:10.1164/ajrccm.166.1.at1102. PMID 12091180.
  9. Hathirat S, Renzetti AD, Mitchell M: Measurement of the total lung capacity by helium dilution in a constant volume system, Am Rev Respir Dis 102:760, 1970.
  10. Boren HG, Kory RC, Snyder JC: The veterans Administration-Army cooperative study of pulmonary function, II: the lung volume and its subdivisions in normal men, Am J Med 41:96, 1966.
  11. Dubois AB, et al: A rapid plethysmographic method for measuring thoracic gas volume: a comparison with a nitrogen washout method for measure FRC in normal patients, J Clin Invest 35:322, 1956.

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