Pulse Oximetry

Learn more about pulse oximetry, its uses, result interpretations, and more with our comprehensive guide. Click here also to get a free tracker copy!

By Patricia Buenaventura on Jul 15, 2024.


Fact Checked by RJ Gumban.

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What is a Pulse Oximetry?

Pulse oximetry, a pivotal medical test, is noninvasive and painless to gauge blood oxygen levels and heart rate. Utilizing a small but sophisticated device known as a pulse oximeter, this test has become an indispensable tool in healthcare settings. 

The pulse oximeter typically clips onto the patient's finger, earlobe, or toe, allowing for a seamless and convenient examination. This device emits two beams of light through the skin and subsequently measures the absorption of each wavelength by the blood. This process calculates the oxygen saturation, represented as SpO2, or the percentage of hemoglobin in the blood carrying oxygen.

A standard SpO2 range falls between 95% and 100%. Deviations from this range may signal potential lung or heart functionality issues or indicate underlying conditions like anemia, asthma, or pneumonia. The versatility of pulse oximetry extends to various healthcare settings, including hospitals, clinics, and even home environments. Its application spans from monitoring oxygen levels post-surgery to assessing responses to treatments or activities affecting oxygenation.

Furthermore, pulse oximetry is crucial in diagnosing and treating respiratory and cardiovascular conditions. During physical exams, sleep studies, or instances of distress such as shortness of breath, chest pain, or dizziness, this test aids in swift and accurate assessments. Moreover, it proves invaluable in determining the need for supplemental oxygen therapy or adjusting oxygen levels. 

How is a Pulse Oximetry conducted?

Step 1: Power on and verify batteries

Begin by turning on the pulse oximeter, ensuring that it is adequately powered with functional batteries to guarantee accurate readings¹.

Step 2: Prepare the measurement site

Before proceeding, eliminate any hindrances to an accurate reading. Remove jewelry and fingernail polish from the chosen finger, as the presence of artificial nails or cold hands can impact the precision of the results.

Step 3: Secure the pulse oximeter

Clip the pulse oximeter onto the end of the selected finger, earlobe, or toe. Ensure that the nail faces upward and that the device is snug yet comfortable on the chosen site.

Step 4: Maintain stillness and correct positioning

Sit quietly with your hand positioned below the level of your heart, keeping it motionless. This positioning enhances the stability of the device, facilitating a reliable and precise reading.

Step 5: Wait for stable readings

Allow at least a minute for the pulse oximeter to provide stable readings. Once the numbers on the screen cease fluctuating, take note of the displayed oxygen saturation level (SpO2 %) and heart rate (PR bpm).

Step 6: Record results

Carefully record the obtained values and remove the pulse oximeter from the measurement site. Whether using a physical notebook or a designated app, keeping a record allows for effective tracking of readings over time.

Step 7: Repeat as necessary

Repeat the steps as instructed if required by your healthcare provider or as part of your monitoring routine. Regular monitoring can aid in tracking changes in oxygen saturation and heart rate.

How are the results of Pulse Oximetry interpreted?

The insights provided by a pulse oximeter, presenting the oxygen saturation level (SpO2 %) and heart rate (PR bpm), offer crucial indicators of one's respiratory and cardiovascular well-being. These metrics play a pivotal role in understanding the efficiency of oxygen transport and heart function.

Oxygen saturation level (SpO2)

The oxygen saturation level, represented as a percentage of hemoglobin carrying oxygen in the blood, ideally falls within the 95% to 100% range. Deviations from this norm may signal potential issues with lung or heart performance.

 A lower SpO2 may indicate compromised lung or heart functionality or conditions such as anemia, asthma, or pneumonia. Pulse oximetry not only aids in diagnosing these conditions but also proves instrumental in monitoring responses to treatments or activities affecting oxygenation.

Heart rate

Concurrently, the heart rate, quantifying the beats per minute, is a multifaceted parameter influenced by age, activity levels, emotions, medications, and overall health. A standard heart rate typically ranges between 60 and 100 beats per minute. 

Abnormalities in heart rate could signify underlying cardiac issues, infections, or stress responses. The pulse oximeter is a valuable tool for healthcare providers to assess heart health and tailor medications or therapies accordingly.

In essence, the results from a pulse oximeter transcend numerical values, serving as vital clues for healthcare professionals to decipher the intricate dynamics of respiratory and cardiovascular health. Regular monitoring of these parameters through pulse oximetry facilitates early detection, intervention, and tailored management of potential health concerns.

When are the best times to conduct a Pulse Oximetry?

The best time to conduct a pulse oximetry test lacks a one-size-fits-all answer, contingent upon the specific purpose and contextual factors. Nevertheless, here are several general guidelines that aid in determining when this diagnostic tool proves most beneficial.

Pulse oximetry emerges as a versatile diagnostic aid in inpatient and outpatient settings. However, while pulse oximetry testing typically occurs during medical examinations, long-term monitoring at home may be imperative in significant fluctuations in blood oxygen levels. 

To add, medical professionals employ pulse oximetry when there is a suspicion of low blood-oxygen levels, utilizing it to diagnose symptoms such as shortness of breath and to monitor oxygen levels during surgery or supplemental oxygen use. Conditions affecting lung function, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer, heart failure, or COVID-19, may necessitate pulse oximetry.

The urgency of monitoring blood oxygen levels, especially during critical situations such as surgery or respiratory illnesses like COVID-19 or pneumonia, cannot be overstated. 

It is crucial to recognize that while pulse oximetry is a valuable screening tool, it should never replace the gold standard of blood oxygen measurement – arterial blood gas analysis. Moreover, it must be employed with sound medical advice from healthcare providers. 

Thus, the ideal timing for pulse oximetry hinges on carefully considering the specific medical context and purpose.

What are the benefits of Pulse Oximetry?

With its simplicity and noninvasive nature, the pulse oximetry test emerges as a powerful instrument for gauging oxygen levels in the blood and heart rate, offering an array of benefits that contribute to comprehensive health monitoring. 

Assess respiratory and cardiovascular health

This diagnostic tool plays a pivotal role in assessing respiratory and cardiovascular health and evaluating the efficacy of various interventions.

Early detection of dangerously low oxygen levels

One of the notable advantages lies in the early detection of dangerously low oxygen levels, particularly critical for newborns and individuals grappling with chronic lung or heart diseases. Timely identification through pulse oximetry is paramount, as low oxygen levels can lead to severe complications and organ damage.

Help determine the need for adjusting oxygen levels

Furthermore, pulse oximetry aids in determining the necessity for supplemental oxygen therapy or adjusting oxygen levels, thereby enhancing the quality of life and mitigating complications arising from insufficient oxygenation. Its utility extends to postoperative care, where it facilitates continuous monitoring during surgery, anesthesia, or sedation, preventing or detecting instances of hypoxia or hyperoxia.

Assess the effectiveness of medication, ventilators, etc. 

The versatility of pulse oximetry shines through in its ability to assess the effectiveness of medications, ventilators, or breathing devices, providing insights into changes in oxygen levels pre- and post-intervention and enabling necessary adjustments. 

Help determine the suitability and safety of physical activities for those with conditions

Additionally, for individuals with respiratory or cardiovascular conditions, pulse oximetry serves as a valuable guide in determining the safety and suitability of physical activities, helping prevent overexertion or under-exertion. 

How long does it take to get Pulse Oximetry results?
How long does it take to get Pulse Oximetry results?

Commonly asked questions

How long does it take to get Pulse Oximetry results?

It will take at least a minute or longer to get stable results.

What needs to be done to prepare for a Pulse Oximetry?

The patient mustn’t have any nail polish or false nails. In addition, they must warm their hands to increase the accuracy of results. 

What are three conditions that can give a false pulse oximetry reading?

Among the multiple conditions that may gi

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