A computer technique (cosinor analysis) has been used to evaluate circadian rhythms in airway calibre in normals and asthmatics. Two hundred and twenty-one normal subjects recorded peak expiratory flow rate (PEFR) at home four times a day for seven days. Rhythm detection was statistically significant in 145 of them (65.6%) who showed a mean amplitude of 8.3% of individual mean PEFR (+/- SD 5.2%). Amplitude was independent of age, sex, atopy, family history of asthma, and smoking habit. Fifteen of them were also studied three times a day for five days in the laboratory with flow-volume loops. Eleven showed significant PEFR rhythms at home. No single measurement from the flow-volume loop showed periodicity in as many of them but rhythms were now also detected in the other four normal subjects in some components of the loop. Fifty-six asthma patients were studied with a similar protocol of PEFR measurement and compared with the 145 rhythmic normal subjects. Mean phases of the normal and asthmatic rhythms were not significantly different with acrophases (peak of rhythm cycle) at 1557 and 1526 respectively. The mean asthmatic amplitude was, however, significantly greater at 50.9%. Nocturnal asthma, therefore, probably represents an exaggeration of a normal circadian rhythm in airway calibre. The amplitude of the PEFR rhythm is an index of bronchial lability and is thus valuable in monitoring asthma patients. An amplitude of greater than 20% should be a useful screening test for asthma.
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