To determine how the presence of generalised airflow limitation due to chronic obstructive lung disease affects the recognition of simulated upper airway obstruction, a study was carried out in 12 patients (mean (SD) age 57 (7) years) with chronic obstructive lung disease (FEV1% predicted 53 (22), range 21-70) and 12 matched control subjects. Patients and control subjects performed maximal inspiratory and expiratory flow-volume curves in a variable volume plethysmograph with and without upper airway obstruction simulated at the mouth with a series of polythene washers of internal diameter 4, 6, 8, 10, and 12 mm. In patients, as in normal subjects, peak expiratory flow (PEF) and maximum inspiratory flow at 50% of vital capacity (Vmax50) were more sensitive to upper airway obstruction than were FEV1 or maximum expiratory flow at 50% VC (VEmax50); but the reductions in all indices caused by simulated upper airway obstruction were smaller in the patients than in the controls. The fall in PEF (whether expressed in absolute units or as a percentages) consequent on severe (4 mm) upper airway obstruction became smaller with increasing severity of chronic obstructive lung disease. The subjects also produced flow-volume curves with and without 6 mm upper airway obstruction while breathing helium and oxygen (heliox). In both groups the effects of heliox on PEF and Vmax50 were increased when upper airway obstruction was simulated. It was confirmed that the functional recognition of upper airway obstruction is more difficult in patients with chronic obstructive lung disease than in normal subjects and this difficulty increases with severity of disease; an unusually large increase in PEF or Vmax50 while the patient is breathing heliox should raise the suspicion of coexisting upper airway obstruction, but such a pattern is not specific.
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