Simply stated, oxygen therapy is treating your body with the extra oxygen
needed when there is not enough oxygen reaching the bloodstream. The air we
breath contains 21% oxygen, which is more than enough for the body under normal
conditions. At the end of the smallest airways are the alveoli. These are the
tiny air sacs between the lungs and the bloodstream where oxygen and carbon
dioxide is exchanged. If there is a blockage in the airways air may not be able
to reach enough alveoli to deliver adequate amounts of oxygen. In many COPD
patients, there is no blockage and adequate air is transferred into the alveoli,
but the oxygen that is in the air is not able to pass properly into the
capillaries surrounding the alveoli and into the bloodstream. Either of these
conditions result in low oxygen levels and are called hypoxemia. Hypoxemia is
the inadequate level of oxygen in the blood which can lead to hypoxia, a
deficiency in the amount of oxygen delivered to the organs and tissues of the
When something such as an illness or accident causes the amount of oxygen that actually reached the blood stream to drop below 88%, then supplemental oxygen is needed. The lowered oxygen in the bloodstream can cause damage to vital organs such as the heart, brain, liver and kidney. Low oxygen levels also cause the bone marrow to produce more red blood cells trying to supply the needed oxygen. Called Polycythemia Vera, it can cause blood clots and can be life threatening.
Breathing even small amounts of supplemental oxygen allows the oxygen level in the air to rise above 21% to 23 or 24%. This small increase is enough to help raise the percent of the oxygen that gets into the capillaries and on into the bloodstream. Since the body cannot store oxygen, this additional oxygen needs to be given at the time the body is low on oxygen. In many instances, this requires that the COPD patient must use oxygen 24 hours a day. The basic treatment, providing supplemental oxygen, either part time or full time, is referred to as oxygen therapy. The need for continuous oxygen, usually 24 hours per day is called long term oxygen therapy (LTOT).
In addition to protecting vital organs, other benefits of oxygen therapy include:
helping to function better and be more active
helping to increase exercise capabilities
decrease shortness of breath and fatigue (tiredness)
improve sleep in some people who have sleep-related breathing disorders
increase the life span of many COPD patients
improve the quality of life for the COPD patient
Note: Oxygen therapy is the only medical treatment that has been proven to increase the COPD patients life span as well as the quality of life.
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Last modified: Feb 10, 2013