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Pulse oximetry is a noninvasive method for monitoring a person's oxygen saturation (SO2)

Pulse oximetry is a noninvasive method for monitoring a person's oxygen saturation (SO2). Its reading of SpO2 (peripheral oxygen saturation) is not always identical to the reading of SaO2 (arterial oxygen saturation) from arterial blood gas analysis, but the two are correlated well enough that the safe, convenient, noninvasive, inexpensive pulse oximetry method is valuable for measuring oxygen saturation in clinical use.

In its most common (transmissive) application mode, a sensor device is placed on a thin part of the patient's body, usually a fingertip or earlobe, or in the case of an infant, across a foot. The device passes two wavelengths of light through the body part to a photodetector. It measures the changing absorbance at each of the wavelengths, allowing it to determine the absorbances due to the pulsing arterial blood alone, excluding venous blood, skin, bone, muscle, fat, and (in most cases) nail polish.

Reflectance pulse oximetry may be used as an alternative to transmissive pulse oximetery described above. This method does not require a thin section of the person's body and is therefore well suited to a universal application such as the feet, forehead, and chest, but it also has some limitations. Vasodilation and pooling of venous blood in the head due to compromised venous return to the heart, as occurs with congenital cyanotic heart disease patients, or in patients in the Trendelenburg position, can cause a combination of arterial and venous pulsations in the forehead region and lead to spurious SpO2 results.

Pulse oximetry is particularly convenient for noninvasive continuous measurement of blood oxygen saturation. In contrast, blood gas levels must otherwise be determined in a laboratory on a drawn blood sample. Pulse oximetry is useful in any setting where a patient's oxygenation is unstable, including intensive care, operating, recovery, emergency and hospital ward settings, pilots in unpressurized aircraft, for assessment of any patient's oxygenation, and determining the effectiveness of or need for supplemental oxygen. Although a pulse oximeter is used to monitor oxygenation, it cannot determine the metabolism of oxygen, or the amount of oxygen being used by a patient. For this purpose, it is necessary to also measure carbon dioxide (CO2) levels. It is possible that it can also be used to detect abnormalities in ventilation. However, the use of a pulse oximeter to detect hypoventilation is impaired with the use of supplemental oxygen, as it is only when patients breathe room air that abnormalities in respiratory function can be detected reliably with its use. Therefore, the routine administration of supplemental oxygen may be unwarranted if the patient is able to maintain adequate oxygenation in room air, since it can result in hypoventilation going undetected.

Because of their simplicity of use and the ability to provide continuous and immediate oxygen saturation values, pulse oximeters are of critical importance in emergency medicine and are also very useful for patients with respiratory or cardiac problems, especially COPD, or for diagnosis of some sleep disorders such as apnea and hypopnea.Portable battery-operated pulse oximeters are useful for pilots operating in a non-pressurized aircraft above 10,000 feet (12,500 feet in the U.S.)where supplemental oxygen is required. Portable pulse oximeters are also useful for mountain climbers and athletes whose oxygen levels may decrease at high altitudes or with exercise.