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Lung volumes are considered part of a complete pulmonary function test, but their value for enhancing clinical decision making is unknown. Unlike spirometry and diffusing capacity of the lung for carbon monoxide (D(LCO)), which do contribute to confirming or excluding a diagnosis, there are few clear indications when lung volumes are discriminatory. Confirming "restriction" when vital capacity (VC) or FVC is reduced is perhaps the most important. A restrictive pattern can have many etiologies, and clinicians often use VC or FVC as a primary index of lung volume. This makes "physiologic" sense because, in healthy subjects, and in patients with true restriction, VC comprises most of the total lung capacity (TLC). Mixed obstruction-restriction and the nonspecific pattern (ie, reduced FVC and FEV(1), normal FEV(1)/FVC and TLC) require measuring TLC to confirm the underlying physiology. In obesity, VC and TLC may remain within normal limits, but functional residual capacity (FRC) can exponentially decrease. Increased lung volumes, particularly residual volume (RV), are commonly observed in airway obstruction. TLC may be normal, but is frequently increased in the late stages of COPD. Hyperinflation and air-trapping are terms commonly used to reflect these changes, but are not well standardized. The variability of lung volumes related to degree of obstruction suggests that measuring gas-trapping may be needed to monitor therapy. Changes in inspiratory capacity, RV, or FRC may be important gauges of response to bronchodilators or other hyperinflation-reducing therapies. How lung volumes are measured may be important, especially in patients who have moderate or severe airway obstruction. Body plethysmography is often considered more accurate than gas dilution methods in the presence of obstruction. However, the differences between techniques are not completely understood. Newer approaches such as computed tomography, although not suitable for routine testing, may help to delineate the true underlying physiology.


Gregg L Ruppel. What is the clinical value of lung volumes? Respiratory care. 2012 Jan;57(1):26-35; discussion 35-8

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PMID: 22222123

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