Open Access Open Badges Research article

Using respiratory rate and thoracic movement to assess respiratory insufficiency in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis: a preliminary study

Waltteri Siirala1*, Tarja Saaresranta2, Arno Vuori1, Sanna Salanterä3, Klaus T Olkkola1 and Riku Aantaa1

Author affiliations

1 Department of Anaesthesiology, Intensive Care, Emergency Care and Pain Medicine, Turku University Hospital and University of Turku, Turku, Finland

2 Department of Pulmonary Diseases, Turku University Hospital, Turku, Finland

3 Department of Nursing Science, University of Turku, Turku, Finland

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Citation and License

BMC Palliative Care 2012, 11:26  doi:10.1186/1472-684X-11-26

Published: 27 December 2012



Hypoventilation due to respiratory insufficiency is the most common cause of death in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and non-invasive ventilation (NIV) can be used as a palliative treatment. The current guidelines recommend performing spirometry, and recording nocturnal oxyhemoglobin saturation and arterial blood gas analysis to assess the severity of the hypoventilation. We examined whether the respiratory rate and thoracic movement were reliable preliminary clinical signs in the development of respiratory insufficiency in patients with ALS.


We measured the respiratory rate and thoracic movement, performed respiratory function tests and blood gas analysis, and recorded subjective hypoventilation symptoms in 42 ALS patients over a 7-year period. We recommended NIV if the patient presented with hypoventilation matching the current guidelines. We divided patients retrospectively into two groups: those to whom NIV was recommended within 6 months of the diagnosis (Group 1) and those to whom NIV was recommended 6 months after the diagnosis (Group 2). We used the Mann Whitney U test for comparisons between the two groups.


The mean partial pressure of arterial carbon dioxide in the morning in Group 1 was 6.3 (95% confidence interval 5.6–6.9) kPa and in Group 2 5.3 (5.0–5.6) kPa (p = 0.007). The mean respiratory rate at the time of diagnosis in Group 1 was 21 (18–24) breaths per minute and 16 (14–18) breaths per minute in Group 2 (p = 0.005). The mean thoracic movement was 2.9 (2.2–3.6) cm in Group 1 and 4.0 (3.4–4.8) cm in Group 2 (p = 0.01). We observed no other differences between the groups.


Patients who received NIV within six months of the diagnosis of ALS had higher respiratory rates and smaller thoracic movement compared with patients who received NIV later. Further studies with larger numbers of patients are needed to establish if these measurements can be used as a marker of hypoventilation in ALS.

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis; Hypoventilation; Non-invasive ventilation