BACKGROUND--Long term oral corticosteroid treatment is a cause of myopathy of the skeletal muscles. The effect of long term treatment with oral corticosteroids on the respiratory muscles is uncertain. Respiratory muscle function and fatigue in sternomastoid muscle were investigated in a group of patients with chronic severe asthma who were taking oral corticosteroids. The results were compared with those from a group of patients with chronic airflow limitation who were not taking oral steroids. METHODS--Twelve patients with chronic severe asthma, taking a mean daily dosage of 8 mg of prednisolone for a mean (SD) of 16.8 (9.1) years, were compared with patients with chronic airflow limitation and individually matched for sex, age, and severity of airflow limitation. Lung function tests, maximal mouth pressures, and quadriceps and sternomastoid muscle strength were measured. The sternomastoid muscle was fatigued by maximal headlift exercise to 70% of initial headlift force and the endurance time noted. Sternomastoid fatigue was assessed by twitch maximum relaxation rate (TMRR) measured in the fresh state and for 30 minutes after exercise. RESULTS--There was no significant difference between the control group and the corticosteroid group for maximal mouth pressures, fresh state TMRR, and quadriceps and sternomastoid strength. The control group had a significantly longer mean (SD) endurance time than the corticosteroid group (121 (47) s v 86 (24) s), and also had significantly less slowing and faster recovery of the TMRR after exercise. The slowing and recovery of the TMRR in the corticosteroid group, however, was similar to that previously reported for normal subjects. CONCLUSION--Respiratory muscle weakness does not occur more often in patients taking oral corticosteroids. The corticosteroid group was more prone to fatigue than the control group, but was similar to normal subjects. This suggests that chronic airflow limitation may produce a training effect on the respiratory muscles that might be attenuated by long term oral corticosteroid treatment.
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