Clinician Article

Oxygen for breathlessness in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease who do not qualify for home oxygen therapy.

  • Ekstrom M
  • Ahmadi Z
  • Bornefalk-Hermansson A
  • Abernethy A
  • Currow D
Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2016 Nov 25;11:CD006429. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD006429.pub3. (Review)
PMID: 27886372
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  • Internal Medicine
    Relevance - 6/7
    Newsworthiness - 6/7
  • Respirology/Pulmonology
    Relevance - 6/7
    Newsworthiness - 4/7
  • Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation
    Relevance - 4/7
    Newsworthiness - 4/7


BACKGROUND: Breathlessness is a cardinal symptom of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Long-term oxygen therapy (LTOT) is given to improve survival time in people with COPD and severe chronic hypoxaemia at rest. The efficacy of oxygen therapy for breathlessness and health-related quality of life (HRQOL) in people with COPD and mild or no hypoxaemia who do not meet the criteria for LTOT has not been established.

OBJECTIVES: To determine the efficacy of oxygen versus air in mildly hypoxaemic or non-hypoxaemic patients with COPD in terms of (1) breathlessness; (2) HRQOL; (3) patient preference whether to continue therapy; and (4) oxygen-related adverse events.

SEARCH METHODS: We searched the Cochrane Airways Group Register, the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL), MEDLINE and Embase, to 12 July 2016, for randomised controlled trials (RCTs). We handsearched the reference lists of included articles.

SELECTION CRITERIA: We included RCTs of the effects of non-invasive oxygen versus air on breathlessness, HRQOL or patient preference to continue therapy among people with COPD and mild or no hypoxaemia (partial pressure of oxygen (PaO2) > 7.3 kPa) who were not already receiving LTOT. Two review authors independently assessed articles for inclusion in the review.

DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS: Two review authors independently collected and analysed data. We assessed risk of bias by using the Cochrane 'Risk of bias tool'. We pooled effects recorded on different scales as standardised mean differences (SMDs) with 95% confidence intervals (CIs) using random-effects models. Lower SMDs indicated decreased breathlessness and reduced HRQOL. We performed subanalyses and sensitivity analyses and assessed the quality of evidence according to the Grading of Recommendations, Assessment, Development and Evaluations (GRADE) approach.

MAIN RESULTS: Compared with the previous review, which was published in 2011, we included 14 additional studies (493 participants), excluded one study and included data for meta-analysis of HRQOL. In total, we included in this review 44 studies including 1195 participants, and we included 33 of these (901 participants)in the meta-analysis.We found that breathlessness during exercise or daily activities was reduced by oxygen compared with air (32 studies; 865 participants; SMD -0.34, 95% CI -0.48 to -0.21; I2 = 37%; low-quality evidence). This translates to a decrease in breathlessness of about 0.7 points on a 0 to 10 numerical rating scale. In contrast, we found no effect of short-burst oxygen given before exercise (four studies; 90 participants; SMD 0.01, 95% CI -0.26 to 0.28; I2 = 0%; low-quality evidence). Oxygen reduced breathlessness measured during exercise tests (25 studies; 442 participants; SMD -0.34, 95% CI -0.46 to -0.22; I2 = 29%; moderate-quality evidence), whereas evidence of an effect on breathlessness measured in daily life was limited (two studies; 274 participants; SMD -0.13, 95% CI, -0.37 to 0.11; I2 = 0%; low-quality evidence).Oxygen did not clearly affect HRQOL (five studies; 267 participants; SMD 0.10, 95% CI -0.06 to 0.26; I2 = 0%; low-quality evidence). Patient preference and adverse events could not be analysed owing to insufficient data.

AUTHORS' CONCLUSIONS: We are moderately confident that oxygen can relieve breathlessness when given during exercise to mildly hypoxaemic and non-hypoxaemic people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease who would not otherwise qualify for home oxygen therapy. Most evidence pertains to acute effects during exercise tests, and no evidence indicates that oxygen decreases breathlessness in the daily life setting. Findings show that oxygen does not affect health-related quality of life.

Clinical Comments


This meta-analysis demonstrates that adult COPD patients with PaO2>=55 mmHg receive no clinically significant or subjective benefits from supplemental oxygen. The results agree with and refine those of the prior Cochrane meta-analysis in 2011. The study further extends the 2011 paper to show the absence of health-related quality of life benefit as well. This is a timely companion to the recently-published LOTT study which addressed somewhat higher resting SpO2 (89-93%) and should together discourage clinicians who treat these patients from providing oxygen for simply symptomatic reasons. It is only a matter of time before governmental and commercial payers will use these studies to deny coverage for oxygen in the absence of severe resting hypoxemia.

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