Measurement of respiratory muscle strength is useful in order to detect respiratory muscle weakness and to quantify its severity. In patients with severe respiratory muscle weakness, vital capacity is reduced but is a non-specific and relatively insensitive measure. Conventionally, inspiratory and expiratory muscle strength has been assessed by maximal inspiratory and expiratory mouth pressures sustained for 1 s (PImax and PEmax) during maximal static manoeuvre against a closed shutter. However, PImax and PEmax are volitional tests, and are poorly reproducible with an average coefficient of variation of 25%. The sniff manoeuvre is natural and probably easier to perform. Sniff pressure, and sniff transdiaphragmatic pressure are more reproducible and useful measure of diaphragmatic strength. Nevertheless, the sniff manoeuvre is also volition-dependent, and submaximal efforts are most likely to occur in patients who are ill or breathless. Non-volitional tests include measurements of twitch oesophageal, gastric and transdiaphragmatic pressure during bilateral electrical and magnetic phrenic nerve stimulation. Electrical phrenic nerve stimulation is technically difficult and is also uncomfortable and painful. Magnetic phrenic nerve stimulation is less painful and transdiaphragmatic pressure is reproducible in normal subjects. It is a relatively easy test that has the potential to become a widely adopted method for the assessment of diaphragm strength. The development of a technique to measure diaphragmatic sound (phonomyogram) during magnetic phrenic nerve stimulation opens the way for noninvasive assessment of diaphragmatic function.
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