To continue our exploration of diabetes and heart health during American Heart Month, I would like to introduce you to pulse oximetry, also known as “pulse ox.” In a nutshell, pulse oximetry devices measure how much oxygen is in your blood. Low oxygen saturation (hypoxemia) in blood can impede body function and harm vital tissues, resulting in shortness of breath, fatigue, confusion, and can be life threatening.

Luckily, technology has come a long way in the field of pulse oximetry. In the late 1970s, an oximeter cost approximately $21,000 and the machine was so big that it had to be placed on a cart which was rolled from hospital room to room. Today, we have the availability of a compact, portable non-invasive finger pulse oximeter which is simple to use and reasonably priced.

Finger pulse oximeters measure the concentration of oxygen in the blood by placing a two-sided probe over the finger. It then monitors pulsating capillaries in the finger tip. The reading should be between 96-100%. Any number below 90% is cause for concern and should certainly be addressed by a physician. A finger pulse oximeter can also read your pulse rate and heart rate.

People with diabetes are known to have circulatory problems, especially in their lower legs and arms, known as PVD or peripheral vascular disease. This is caused by fatty plaque buildup or atherosclerosis in the blood vessels. PVD is twenty times more common in diabetics than the average population. The most common symptom is intermittent claudication which is cramping leg pain brought on by walking distances. Symptoms can get so bad that someone with PVD will only be able to walk a few feet without severe pain.

Vascular disease in the legs can also cause the inability of small cuts to heal, and this could lead to gangrene and eventual amputation. The way to reduce the risk of PVD is to control weight, control blood pressure, not smoke and control your lipids (cholesterol and other fats in blood) with diet and/or medication.

Another reason to use the pulse oximeter is if you suspect that you have sleep apnea. People with diabetes are at increased risk for sleep apnea and treating this will help control your diabetes. Sleep apnea causes you to stop breathing while you are sleeping, which causes oxygen deprivation. This oxygen deprivation can lead to stroke, uncontrolled diabetes, heart disease, weight gain, or even depression. Using the pulse oximeter can measure oxygen levels but should not be used to diagnose sleep apnea. Knowing the signs of sleep apnea such as fatigue and falling asleep during the day should be addressed by your physician.

When using a pulse oximeter, there a few things to be aware of to ensure a proper reading. Finger pulse oximeters can be affected by cold fingers, low blood pressure, excessive movement and nail polish. Dark colored nail polish and artificial nails may cause inaccurate results. Atrial fibrillation (abnormal heart rhythm) can cause the pulse oximeter to read incorrectly. The ear lobe can be used in place of the fingers if necessary.

Using a pulse oximeter can help you know more about your own health in an easy and low cost way.

Enjoy the knowledge and use it to improve how you feel!