Pulse oximetry is a test used to measure the oxygen level (oxygen saturation) of the blood. It is an easy, painless measure of how well oxygen is being sent to parts of your body furthest from your heart, such as the arms and legs.
In its most common (transmissive) application mode, a sensor device is placed on a thin part of the patient’s body, usually a fingertip or earlobe, or in the case of an infant, across a foot. The device passes two wavelengths of light through the body part to a photodetector. It measures the changing absorbance at each of the wavelengths, allowing it to determine the absorbances due to the pulsing arterial blood alone, excluding venous blood, skin, bone, muscle, fat, and (in most cases) nail polish.
Less commonly, reflectance pulse oximetry is used as an alternative to transmissive pulse oximetery described above. This method does not require a thin section of the person’s body and is therefore well suited to a universal application such as the feet, forehead, and chest, but it also has some limitations. Vasodilation and pooling of venous blood in the head due to compromised venous return to the heart can cause a combination of arterial and venous pulsations in the forehead region and lead to spurious SpO2 results. Such conditions occur while undergoing anesthesia with endotracheal intubation and mechanical ventilation or in patients in the Trendelenburg position.