Small Airway Dysfunction and Abnormal Exercise Responses. A Study in Coal Miners

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Coal mine dust exposure can cause symptoms and loss of lung function from multiple mechanisms, but the roles of each disease process are not fully understood.


We investigated the implications of small airway dysfunction for exercise physiology among a group of workers exposed to coal mine dust.


Twenty coal miners performed spirometry, first breathing air and then helium-oxygen, single-breath diffusing capacity, and computerized chest tomography, and then completed cardiopulmonary exercise testing.

Measurements and Main Results:

Six participants meeting criteria for small airway dysfunction were compared with 14 coal miners who did not. At submaximal workload, miners with small airway dysfunction used a higher proportion of their maximum voluntary ventilation and had higher ventilatory equivalents for both O2 and CO2. Regression modeling indicated that inefficient ventilation was significantly related to small airway dysfunction but not to FEV1 or diffusing capacity. At the end of exercise, miners with small airway dysfunction had 27% lower O2 consumption.


Small airway abnormalities may be associated with important inefficiency of exercise ventilation. In dust-exposed individuals with only mild abnormalities on resting lung function tests or chest radiographs, cardiopulmonary exercise testing may be important in defining causes of exercise intolerance.

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