BackgroundRecent studies have emphasized the difficulty of early detection of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in symptomatic smokers with normal routine spirometry. This includes post-bronchodilator normal forced expiratory volume in 1 second (FEV1)(L)≥80% predicted, forced vital capacity (FVC)(L)≥80% predicted, and FEV1/FVC ≥70% or greater than age corrected lower limit of normal (LLN). However, in COPD the pathologic site of small airway obstruction and emphysema begins in the small peripheral airways ≤2 mm id which normally contribute <20% of total airway resistance.
MethodsExpiratory airflow at high and low lung volumes post-bronchodilator were measured and correlated with lung computed tomography (CT) and lung pathology (6 patients) in 16 symptomatic, treated smokers, and all with normal routine spirometry.
ResultsDespite normal routine spirometry, all16 patients had isolated, abnormal forced expiratory flow at 75% of FVC (FEF75) using data from Knudson et al, Hankinson et al NHAMES III, and Quanjer et al and the Global Lung Function Initiative. This reflects isolated detection of small airways obstruction and/or emphysema. Measuring airflow at FEF50 detected only 8 of 16 patients, maximal expiratory flow at 25%-75% of FVC (MEF25-75) only 4 of 16, residual volume (RV) 4 of 16, and RV to total lung capacity ratio only 2 of 16. There was excellent correlation between limited lung pathology and lung CT for absence of emphysema.
ConclusionThis study confirms our earlier observations that detection of small airways obstruction and/or emphysema, in symptomatic smokers with normal routine spirometry, requires analysis of expiratory airflow at low lung volumes, including FEF75. Dependence upon normal routine spirometry may result in clinical and physiologic delay in the diagnosis and treatment in symptomatic smokers with emphysema and small airways obstruction.