Mild abnormalities of peripheral lung function can be detected by simple methods, but it remains difficult to determine when these changes are the result of emphysema rather than disease of the airways. We have compared the value of measurements of lung distensibility and a multibreath test of helium (He) and sulphur hexafluoride (SF6) washout in distinguishing between six men with mild impairment of airway function caused by asthma (group A) and six men with similar airway function but probable widespread emphysema (group E). In group E there were striking abnormalities in the static pressure-volume curve of the lungs (reduced lung recoil pressures, increased chord compliance, increased shape factor) and the relation between maximum expiratory flow and lung recoil pressure fell within the normal range. In group A there were only minor abnormalities in lung distensibility and maximum expiratory flow was reduced at a standard lung recoil pressure. In addition carbon monoxide transfer coefficient was reduced in group E but normal in group A. Normal values for He-SF6 washout were similar to those previously described. Differences in He-SF6 washout between group A and group E men were small and in part accounted for by differences in functional residual capacity. In subjects with lung disease, end-tidal He and SF6 concentrations during washout were erratic and it was sometimes impossible to define a crossover point. We conclude that in our hands this technique is less useful for detecting acinar disease than are measurements of lung distensibility or carbon monoxide transfer. Considerable changes in lung distensibility may occur at an early stage in the natural history of emphysema and are readily distinguishable from the small changes that occur in mild asthma.
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