Can Lying In the ‘Prone Position’ Help Increase Your Oxygen Level?

"This position helps in improving oxygen flow in patients who are critical," says expert.

Updated
Coronavirus
5 min read
<div class="paragraphs"><p>How do you perform proning correctly?</p></div>
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With the country facing a healthcare crisis like never before, and our healthcare system collapsing under its weight, doctors have been recommending ways in which people who suspect or have COVID can manage their symptoms at home.

One such recommendation is the technique called 'proning' or lying in the 'prone position' which is said to increase the oxygen levels in patients who either experience breathlessness or a dip in their oxygen levels.

The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW), too, has released a detailed guideline on proning, as a self-care measure for COVID patients.

What is proning? How does it help COVID patients? When should you do it, and how to do it right?

FIT speaks to Dr Rajesh Kumar Pande, Senior Director & HOD, Critical Care, BLK-Max Super Speciality Hospital and Dr Praveen Gupta, Director and Head of Department, Neurology, Fortis Memorial Research Institute, Gurugram, to break it down.

What is Prone Position?

First things first, what even is 'proning'?

'Proning' is not an exercise, but more of a manoeuvre or as the name suggests, a 'position'.

“In this, the patient is made to lie down with their chest and stomach facing down and take deep breaths.”
Dr Praveen Gupta, Director and Head of Department, Neurology, Fortis Memorial Research Institute, Gurugram.

"This position helps in improving oxygen flow in patients who are critical, in turn ensuring that they are less likely to require ventilator support," he adds.

It isn't a particularly new technique.

Dr Rajesh Kumar Pande, Senior Director & HOD, Critical Care, BLK-Max Super Speciality Hospital tells us how 'proning' has been practised by medical professionals for years in non-COVID scenarios.

He goes on to talk about a study conducted in France 10 years ago that showed that patients with acute respiratory failure were helped with proning.

"The study showed that proning of atleast 16 hours in patients with moderate to acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) who are on ventilators, significantly decreased mortality, especially compared to the other cases where everything else except proning was done.”
Dr Rajesh Kumar Pande, Senior Director & HOD, Critical Care, BLK-Max Super Speciality Hospital

Since then proning in ventilated patients has become a norm, especially for those who have ARDS or severe respiratory failure.

How Proning Helps

Dr Rajesh Kumar Pande explains this with an analogy.

"Our lungs are like a collection of millions of little balloons that inflate and deflate with every breath," he says.

The round shape of these alveoli is retained in a healthy person, even as they deflate.

"In severe respiratory failure, these get inflated when you breathe in, but instead of the balls retaining their shape, they collapse when you exhale."

This is a pulmonary problem that COVID patients face.

Moreover, "When a person is lying in the supine position (on their backs), the heart is pressing on the lungs. Because of this certain parts of the lungs are not able to fully inflate."

“But when we put the ventilated patients in the prone position, the weight of the heart falls on the breastbone and the chest wall, allowing the lungs to inflate fully, allowing better aeration.”
Dr Rajesh Kumar Pande, Senior Director & HOD, Critical Care, BLK-Max Super Speciality Hospital

According to Dr Pande, other ways in which proning helps patients with acute respiratory failure are,

  • The homogenous distribution of ventilation, and improvement of overall oxygenation

  • Very good matching of ventilation (lung inflation) with perfusion (blood supply)

  • Due to gravity, secretions in the lungs also come out reducing the risk of ventilator-associated pneumonia.

Proning in COVID 

When it comes to covid related respiratory failure, Dr Pande speaks of two types of cases, one is the type of patients who don't feel any outward symptoms or discomfort, a condition dubbed 'happy hypoxia'.

The other are patients who experience the classic symptoms of severe hypoxia, and classical respiratory failure.

"This is one of the more critical dangers of COVID, especially considering young patients with happy hypoxia can rapidly develop severe respiratory failure," he says. "This is how proning has come into the picture here."

“As medical professionals, we are trying to find ways to prevent further deaths from COVID-19 and “proning” is one such technique.”
Dr. Praveen Gupta, Director and Head of Department, Neurology, Fortis Memorial Research Institute, Gurugram

"Initially when the disease is not so severe, we ask patients to lie down in a prone position when they start experiencing difficulty breathing," says Dr Pande.

Dr Pande speaks of his own patients who have benefitted from it.

“A lot of my own patients have said that they clearly feel much better when they night prone. People can even night prone with an oxygen mask.”
Dr Rajesh Kumar Pande, Senior Director & HOD, Critical Care, BLK-Max Super Speciality Hospital

But it has its limitations

Proning has not been scientifically tested in this scenario. Rather, the benefits observed in the ventilator study have been extrapolated here.”
Dr Rajesh Kumar Pande, Senior Director & HOD, Critical Care, BLK-Max Super Speciality Hospital

For this reason, it is difficult to say with absolute certainty that it works, and the extent to which it works.

"The only thing we need is to back it up scientifically, but right now, to do a controlled study, in the current scenario would be very difficult," he says.

That being said, Dr Pande speaks of how practically, around the world, doctors have noticed a significant difference in their patients.

Dr Gupta adds to this saying,

“There is no adverse effect related to the position, however, we must keep in mind that proning is not the sole solution to improve oxygen level and it should be complimented with other necessary treatments as well.”
Dr. Praveen Gupta, Director and Head of Department, Neurology, Fortis Memorial Research Institute, Gurugram

Dr Pande also says, "proning should only be done when you feel breathless or if you find your oxygen level is dropping."

If you're experiencing any COVID symptoms or are self-quarantining, you can monitor your oxygen level using a pulse-oximeter.

How to Read an Oxygen Meter Right

Dr Pande explains, "oxygen levels of 94 and above is considered acceptable in those who are breathing room air which contains 20 percent oxygen."

If you have covid and are self treating at home, it's important you know how to read the oxygen meter correctly.

Before that, though, it's important you have the right kind of oxygen meter.

Dr Pande suggests buying a portable pulse-oximeter that shows both the heart rate and a graph (plethysmograph), over the finger probe that only give values.

What can cause errors in the reading?

Dr Pande talks of these obstructions that can cause inaccurate readings,

  • In case of finger probes, if the finger is not profused well.

This can happen in people who have low blood pressure, as blood flow to the fingertips in such people will be relatively lower.

  • Other obstructions such as nail paint, can also affect the reading.

  • Another limitation of the device itself is that it may not be very accurate when it comes to showing lower values as it is with higher values.

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