Spirometry Tests

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Spirometry Tests

Normal results


Spirometry is the measurement of air flow into and out of the lungs.


Spirometry requires that the nose is pinched off as the patient breathes through a mouthpiece attached to the spirometer. The patient is instructed on how to breathe during the procedure. Three breathing maneuvers are practiced before recording the procedure, and the highest of three trials is used for evaluation of breathing. This procedure measures air flow by electronic or mechanical displacement principles, and uses a microprocessor and recorder to calculate and plot air flow.

The test produces a recording of the patient’s ventilation under conditions involving both normal and maximal effort. The recording, called a spirogram, shows the volume of air moved and the rate at which it travels into and out of the lungs. Spirometry measures several lung capacities. Accurate measurement is dependent upon the patient performing the appropriate maneuver properly. The most common measurements are:

  • Vital capacity (VC). This is the amount of air (in liters) moved out of the lung during normal breathing. The patient is instructed to breathe in and out normally to attain full expiration. Vital capacity is usually about 80% of the total lung capacity. Because of the elastic nature of the lungs and surrounding thorax, a small volume of air will remain in the lungs after full exhalation. This volume is called the residual volume (RV).
  • Forced vital capacity (FVC). After breathing out normally to full expiration, the patient is instructed to breathe in with a maximal effort and then exhale as forcefully and rapidly as possible. The FVC is the volume of air that is expelled into the spirometer following a maximum inhalation effort.
  • Forced expiratory volume (FEV). At the start of the FVC maneuver, the spirometer measures the volume of air delivered through the mouthpiece at timed intervals of 0.5, 1.0, 2.0, and 3.0 seconds. The sum of these measurements normally constitutes about 97% of the FVC measurement. The most commonly used FEV measurement is FEV-1, which is the volume of air exhaled into the mouthpiece in one second. The FEV-1 should be at least 70% of the FVC.
  • Forced expiratory flow 25-75% (FEF 25-75). This is a calculation of the average flow rate over the center portion of the forced expiratory volume recording. It is determined from the time in seconds at which 25% and 75% of the vital capacity is reached. The volume of air exhaled in liters per second between these two times is the FEF 25-75. This value reflects the status of the medium and small sized airways.
  • Maximal voluntary ventilation (MVV). This maneuver involves the patient breathing as deeply and as rapidly as possible for 15 seconds. The average air flow (liters per second) indicates the strength and endurance of the respiratory muscles.

Normal values for FVC, FEV, FEF, and MVV are dependent on the patient’s age, gender, and height.


Spirometry is the most commonly performed pulmonary function test (PFT). The test can be performed at the bedside, in a physician’s office, or in a pulmonary laboratory. It is often the first test performed when a problem with lung function is suspected. Spirometry may also be suggested by an abnormal x ray, arterial blood gas analysis, or other diagnostic pulmonary test result. The National Lung Health Education Program


Bronchodilator— A drug, usually self-administered by inhalation, that dilates the airways.

Forced expiratory volume (FEV)— The volume of air exhaled from the beginning of expiration to a set time (usually 0.5, 1, 2, and 3 seconds).

Forced vital capacity (FVC)— The volume of air that can be exhaled forceably after a maximal inspiration.

Hemoptysis— Spitting up of blood derived from the lungs or bronchial tubes as a result of pulmonary or bronchial hemorrhage.

Thrombosis— Formation or presence of a thrombus; clotting within a blood vessel that may cause infarction of tissues supplied by the vessel.

Thrombotic— Relating to, caused by, or characterized by thrombosis.

Vital capacity (VC)— The volume of air that can be exhaled following a full inspiration.

recommends that regular spirometry tests be performed on persons over 45 years old who have a history of smoking. Spirometry tests are also recommended for persons with a family history of lung disease, chronic respiratory ailments, and advanced age.

Spirometry measures ventilation, the movement of air into and out of the lungs. The spirogram will identify two different types of abnormal ventilation patterns, obstructive and restrictive.

Common causes of an obstructive pattern are cystic fibrosis, asthma, bronchiectasis, bronchitis, and emphysema. These conditions may be collectively referred to by using the acronym CABBE. Chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma result in dyspnea (difficulty breathing) and ventilation deficiency, a condition known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). COPD is the fourth leading cause of death among Americans.

Common causes of a restrictive pattern are pneumonia, heart disease, pregnancy, lung fibrosis, pneumothorax (collapsed lung), and pleural effusion (compression caused by chest fluid).

Obstructive and restrictive patterns can be identified on spirographs using both a “y” and “x” axis. Volume (liters) is plotted on the y-axis versus time (seconds) on the x-axis. A restrictive pattern is characterized by a normal shape showing reduced volumes for all parameters. The reduction in volumes indicates the severity of the disease. An obstructive patter produces a spirogram with an abnormal shape. Inspiration volume is reduced. The volume of air expelled is normal but the air flow rate is slower, causing an elongated tail to the FVC.

A flow-volume loop spirogram is another way of displaying spirometry measurements. This requires the FVC maneuver followed by a forced inspiratory volume (FIV). Flow rate in liters per second is plotted on the y-axis and volume (liters) is plotted on the x-axis. The expiration phase is shown on top and the inspiration phase on the bottom. The flow-volume loop spirogram is helpful in diagnosing upper airway obstruction, and can differentiate some types of restrictive patterns.

Some conditions produce specific signs on the spirogram. Irregular inspirations with rapid frequency are caused by hyperventilation associated with stress. Diffuse fibrosis of the lung causes rapid breathing of reduced volume, which produces a repetitive pattern known as the penmanship sign. Serial reduction in the FVC peaks indicates air trapped inside the lung. A notch and reduced volume in the early segments of the FVC is consistent with airway collapse. A rise at the end of expiration is associated with airway resistance.

Spirometry is used to assess lung function over time, and often to evaluate the efficacy of bronchodilator inhalers such as albuterol. It is important for the patient to refrain from using a bronchodilator prior to the evaluation. Spirometry is performed before and after inhaling the bronchodilator. In general, a 12% or greater improvement in both FVC and FEV-1, or an increase in FVC by 0.2 liters, is considered a significant improvement for an adult patient.


The patient should inform the physician of any medications he or she is taking, or of any medical conditions that are present; these factors may affect the validity of the test. The patient’s smoking habits and history should be thoroughly documented. The patient must be able to understand and respond to instructions for the breathing maneuvers. Therefore, the test may not be appropriate for very young, unresponsive, or physically impaired persons.

Spirometry is contraindicated in patients whose condition will be aggravated by forced breathing, including:

  • hemoptysis (spitting up blood from the lungs or bronchial tubes)
  • pneumothorax (free air or gas in the pleural cavity)
  • recent heart attack
  • unstable angina
  • aneurysm (cranial, thoracic, or abdominal)
  • thrombotic condition (such as clotting within a blood vessel)
  • recent thoracic or abdominal surgery
  • nausea or vomiting

The test should be terminated if the patient shows signs of significant head, chest, or abdominal pain while the procedure is in progress.

Spirometry is dependent upon the patient’s full compliance with breathing instructions, especially his or her willingness to extend a maximal effort at forced breathing. Therefore, the patient’s emotional state must be considered.


The patient’s age, gender, and race are recorded, and height and weight are measured before the procedure begins. The patient should not have eaten heavily within three hours of the test. He or she should be instructed to wear clothing that fits loosely over the chest and abdominal area. The respiratory therapist or other testing personnel should explain and demonstrate the breathing maneuvers to the patient. The patient should practice breathing into the mouthpiece until he or she is able to duplicate the maneuvers successfully on two consecutive attempts.


In most cases, special care is not required following spirometry. Occasionally, a patient may become lightheaded or dizzy. Such patients should be asked to rest or lie down, and should not be discharged until after the symptoms subside. In rare cases, the patient may experience pneumothorax, intracranial hypertension, chest pain, or uncontrolled coughing. In such cases, additional care directed by a physician may be required.

Normal results

The results of spirometry tests are compared to predicted values based on the patient’s age, gender, and height. For example, a young adult in good health is expected to have the following FEV values:

  • FEV-0.5—50-60% of FVC
  • FEV-1—75-85% of FVC
  • FEV-2—95% of FVC
  • FEV-3—97% of FVC

In general, a normal result is 80-100% of the predicted value. Abnormal values are:

  • mild lung dysfunction—60-79%
  • moderate lung dysfunction—40-59%
  • severe lung dysfunction—below 40%


What preparation is needed before the test?

What results are expected?

When will the results be available?

What are the risks of the test in this particular case?



Braunwald, Eugene et al., editors. Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine. Philadelphia: McGraw-Hill, 2001.


Blonshine, S. and J.B. Fink. “Spirometry: Asthma and COPD Guidelines Creating Opportunities for RTs.” AARC Times (January 2000): 43–7.


National Lung Health Education Program (NLHEP). 1850 High Street, Denver, CO 80218. http://www.nlhep.org.


Gary, T., et al. “Office Spirometry for Lung Health Assessment in Adults: A Consensus Statement for the National Lung Health Education Program.” (March 2000): 1146–61.

National Institutes of Health. [cited April 4, 2003] http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/encyclopedia.html.

“Spirometry—AARC Clinical Practice Guide.” American Association for Respiratory Care. 1130 Ables Lane, Dallas, TX 75229. [cited April 4, 2003] http://www.muhealth.org/~shrp/rtwww/rcweb/aarc/spirocpg.html.

Robert Harr

Paul Johnson

Mark A. Best

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