In the clinical setting, nasal cannulas are frequently used to deliver supplemental oxygen to neonates and are not believed to affect the general respiratory status. In contrast, it was hypothesized that clinical changes associated with nasal cannula gas flow may be related in part to the generation of positive end-distending pressure. To test this hypothesis, alterations in esophageal pressure were quantified as an indication of end-distending pressure and thoracoabdominal motion was quantified as an indication of breathing patterns in 13 preterm infants at gas flow levels of 0.5, 1, and 2 L/min delivered by nasal cannula with an outer diameter of either 0.2 or 0.3 cm. Changes in esophageal pressure were assessed by esophageal balloon manometry. Ventilatory patterns were assessed from thoracoabdominal motion by using respiratory inductive plethysmography. Thoracoabdominal motion was quantitated as a phase angle (Θ); larger values represent greater asynchrony. The 0.2-cm nasal cannula did not deliver pressure or alter thoracoabdominal motion at any flow. In contrast, the 0.3-cm nasal cannula delivered positive end-distending pressure as a function of increasing levels of gas flow (r = .92) and reduced thoracoabdominal motion asynchrony. The mean pressure generated at 2 L/min was 9.8 cm H2O. These data demonstrate that nasal cannula gas flow can deliver positive end-distending pressure to infants and significantly alter their breathing strategy. This finding raises important concerns about the indiscriminate therapeutic use, size selection, and safety of nasal cannulas for the routine delivery of oxygen in preterm infants.

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