BACKGROUND: Provision of ambulatory oxygen using an intermittent pulsed flow regulated by a demand oxygen delivery system (DODS) greatly increases the limited supply time of standard portable gaseous cylinders. The efficacy of such a system has not previously been studied during submaximal exercise in subjects with severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in whom desaturation is likely to be great and where usage is often most appropriate. METHODS: Fifteen subjects with severe COPD and oxygen desaturation underwent six minute walk tests performed in random order to compare the efficacy of a demand oxygen delivery system (DODS) with continuous flow oxygen. Walk distance, breathlessness, oxygen saturation, resting time, and recovery time (objective and subjective) were recorded and compared for each walk. RESULTS: Breathing continuous oxygen compared with baseline air breathing improved mean walk distance (295 m versus 271 m) and recovery time (47 seconds versus 112 seconds), whilst the lowest recorded saturation (81% versus 74%) and time desaturated below 90% (201 seconds versus 299 seconds) were reduced. When the DODS was compared with air breathing only the walk distance changed (283 m versus 271 m). A comparison of the DODS with continuous oxygen breathing showed the DODS to be less effective at oxygenating subjects with inferior lowest saturation (78% versus 81%), time spent below 90% (284 seconds versus 201 seconds), time to objective recovery (83 seconds versus 47 seconds), and walk distance (283 m versus 295 m). CONCLUSIONS: Neither of the delivery systems was able to prevent desaturation in these subjects. The use of continuous flow oxygen, however, was accompanied by improvements in oxygenation, walk distance, and recovery time compared with air breathing. The DODS produced only a small increase in walk distance without elevation of oxygen saturation, but was inferior to continuous flow oxygen in most of the measured variables when compared directly.
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