Pulse oximetry

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Pulse oximetry is a procedure used to measure the oxygen level (or oxygen saturation) in the blood. It is considered to be a non-invasive, painless, general indicator of oxygen delivery to the peripheral tissues (such as the finger, earlobe, or nose).

Pulse oximetry is a noninvasive method for monitoring a person's oxygen saturation (SO2). Its reading of SpO2 (peripheral oxygen saturation) is not always identical to the reading of SaO2 (arterial oxygen saturation) from arterial blood gas analysis, but the two are reliably enough correlated that the safe, convenient, noninvasive, inexpensive pulse oximetry method is valuable for measuring oxygen saturation in clinical use.

In its most common (transmissive) application mode, a sensor device is placed on a thin part of the patient's body, usually a fingertip or earlobe, or in the case of an infant, across a foot. The device passes two wavelengths of light through the body part to a photodetector. It measures the changing absorbance at each of the wavelengths, allowing it to determine the absorbances due to the pulsing arterial blood alone, excluding venous blood, skin, bone, muscle, fat, and (in most cases) nail polish.

Reflectance pulse oximetry may be used as an alternative to transmissive pulse oximetery described above. This method does not require a thin section of the person's body and is therefore well suited to more universal application such as the feet, forehead and chest, but it also has some limitations. Vasodilation and pooling of venous blood in the head due to compromised venous return to the heart, as occurs with congenital cyanotic heart disease patients, or in patients in the Trendelenburg position, can cause a combination of arterial and venous pulsations in the forehead region and lead to spurious SpO2 results.

Limitations Pulse oximetry measures solely hemoglobin saturation, not ventilation and is not a complete measure of respiratory sufficiency. It is not a substitute for blood gases checked in a laboratory, because it gives no indication of base deficit, carbon dioxide levels, blood pH, or bicarbonate (HCO3−) concentration. The metabolism of oxygen can be readily measured by monitoring expired CO2, but saturation figures give no information about blood oxygen content. Most of the oxygen in the blood is carried by hemoglobin; in severe anemia, the blood will carry less total oxygen, despite the hemoglobin being 100% saturated.

Erroneously low readings may be caused by hypoperfusion of the extremity being used for monitoring (often due to a limb being cold, or from vasoconstriction secondary to the use of vasopressor agents); incorrect sensor application; highly calloused skin; or movement (such as shivering), especially during hypoperfusion. To ensure accuracy, the sensor should return a steady pulse and/or pulse waveform. Pulse oximetry technologies differ in their abilities to provide accurate data during conditions of motion and low perfusion.

Pulse oximetry also is not a complete measure of circulatory sufficiency. If there is insufficient bloodflow or insufficient hemoglobin in the blood (anemia), tissues can suffer hypoxia despite high oxygen saturation in the blood that does arrive. In 2008, a pulse oximeter that can also measure hemoglobin levels in addition to oxygen saturation was introduced by Masimo. In addition to the standard two wavelengths of light, the devices use multiple additional wavelengths of light to quantify hemoglobin.

Since pulse oximetry only measures the percentage of bound hemoglobin, a falsely high or falsely low reading will occur when hemoglobin binds to something other than oxygen:

  • Hemoglobin has a higher affinity to carbon monoxide than oxygen, and a high reading may occur despite the patient actually being hypoxemic. In cases of carbon monoxide poisoning, this inaccuracy may delay the recognition of hypoxia (low blood oxygen level).
  • Cyanide poisoning gives a high reading, because it reduces oxygen extraction from arterial blood. In this case, the reading is not false, as arterial blood oxygen is indeed high in early cyanide poisoning.
  • Methemoglobinemia characteristically causes pulse oximetry readings in the mid-80s.

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