We have studied arterial oxygen saturation (SaO2), breathing patterns, and electroencephalographic (EEG) sleep stage during nocturnal sleep in six patients with right-to-left cardiac or intrapulmonary shunts and six patients with chronic bronchitis and emphysema, chosen because they were equally hypoxaemic when awake (SaO2 during wakefulness: bronchitis 74-90%, mean 83%; shunt 77-89%, mean 83%). The patients with bronchitis had far greater falls in SaO2 when asleep than those with shunts (maximum fall in SaO2 during sleep: bronchitis 14-47%, mean 29%; shunt 5-10%, mean 8%; p less than 0.01). Significant episodes of hypoxaemia (defined as SaO2 falls greater than 10%) occurred in all six bronchitic patients, from once to seven times per night, but in none of the patients with shunts (p less than 0.05). Twenty-four of the 27 episodes of hypoxaemia occurred in rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep and 24 were associated with hypopnoea. The two groups of patients had similar EEG sleep patterns and the same amount of hypopnoea during sleep. Thus the level of arterial oxygenation when the patient is awake is not the sole determinant of the degree of nocturnal hypoxaemia; the pathological process is also important.
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