COHb and Pulse Oximetry

I was reviewing a report recently that included the results for walking oximetry. These showed that the individual has a resting SaO2 of 97% and desaturated significantly to 86% after walking a couple hundred yards. This was curious since a DLCO had also been performed and the results for that test were 94% of predicted. It’s unusual for somebody with a normal DLCO to have that low of an SaO2 but I have seen it before in individuals who were unable to ventilate adequately because of a paralyzed diaphragm. I’ve also seen it happen sometimes when somebody has a peripheral vascular disease like Reynaud’s that produces a poor quality oximeter signal. Buried in the technician’s notes however, was an additional piece of information that called into question both the resting and the exercise SaO2 readings. Specifically, the notes mentioned that an ABG had been performed and that the subject’s COHb was 9%.

Oxygen saturation is measured spectrophotometrically. The different forms of hemoglobin, i.e. oxyhemoglobin (O2Hb), deoxyhemoglobin, methemoglobin (MetHb) and carboxyhemoglobin (COHb) absorb the frequencies of red and infrared light differently.

from Hampson NH. Pulse oximetry in severe carbon monoxide poisoning. Chest 1998; 114: 1036-1041

Although non-invasive oximetry was first developed during the 1930’s and 1940’s (in 1935 by K. Mathes in Germany and independently in 1942 by G. Milliken in the USA), current pulse oximeter technology dates from 1972 (by Takuo Aoyagi, researcher for Nihon Koden in Japan). The original pulse oximeters were large, bulky and generally stationary pieces of equipment. Oximeters underwent progressive miniaturization during the 1980’s and 1990’s and rapidly evolved into the handheld and fingertip units we see today and the only “stationary” oximeters that remain are those used in ICU-type monitoring systems.

Modern laboratory CO-oximeters measure the absorption of light in a blood sample at up to 128 wavelengths, spread across the entire hemoglobin absorption spectrum. Using mathematical analysis they can report total hemoglobin concentration and oxygen saturation in addition to fractional deoxyhemoglobin, COHb, and MetHb.

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