Wearable health trackers have become the accessory de jour and there is a new health metric on the block; blood oxygen. But what has prompted all this? Pulse Oximeters (the little sensors that measure blood oxygen) have been around for a long time. They are used by medical professionals to identify underlying conditions such as sleep apnea, monitor significant drops in oxygen levels thanks to respiratory conditions, and give early warning of chronic illnesses.
Nowadays, every wearable health tracker on the market has a built-in pulse oximeter to keep tabs on oxygen saturation levels. In this article, we’ll take a look at what a Pulse Oximeter is, how it works, and why it has become all the rage.
What is a Pulse Oximeter/SpO2 Sensor?
Pulse Oximeters, also known as Sp02 sensors, were originally only used in hospitals. They clipped onto a finger, toe, or ear lobe and allowed medical staff to read your oxygen levels in a matter of minutes. Reliable, non-invasive, and affordable, they have become a staple in every medical practitioners’ toolkit.
They come in many forms including reusable clip-on options, or disposable sensors such as the Masimo sensor.
So, how do they work? Most pulse oximeters employ red and infrared light sensors to measure the levels of oxygen in the blood. Based on how the light passes through your skin, the sensors can accurately read the percentage of oxygen in your blood, potentially saving you from harmful conditions or sudden drops in oxygen.
Why is it Key to Track Blood Oxygen Levels?
As a general rule, the percentage of oxygen in the blood should be above 95%. Although, this could fluctuate slightly if a person has an underlying condition that reduces their blood oxygen levels. A reading of under 92% may indicate an undetected condition or that the person requires supplementary oxygen to prevent long-term health issues as a result of depleted oxygen levels.
Since the global pandemic struck, more and more people are concerned with blood oxygen levels. This is because COVID 19 is a respiratory virus that notoriously depletes oxygen levels causing respiratory distress in many sufferers.
While it may have been COVID 19 that brought Pulse Oximeters into the limelight, they benefit a whole range of people. Athletes or those doing intense physical activity need to keep a close eye on their blood oxygen levels as do those at high altitudes. Sp02 sensors are also invaluable when it comes to detecting disorders such as sleep apnea. Left undetected, sleep apnea can result in long-term health problems such as high blood pressure, heart attack, and severe weight gain.
That’s not all. Monitoring blood oxygen levels is also essential for people who suffer from chronic illnesses including lung cancer, heart failure, or asthma, making it an extremely important health metric.
The Humble Origins of the Pulse Oximeter
The original oxygen saturation meters came on the scene in the thirties. They used light transmission to measure oxygen levels much like they do today. However, it was around the sixties and seventies when Pulse Oximeters as we know them today were born. As they became smaller and less invasive, they were made available for purchase for at-home use. In the early seventies, a Japanese bioengineer by the name of Takuo Aoyagi introduced the very first noninvasive method of transmitting light through the ear. This later developed into the pulse oximeter.
As demand grew, Sp02 sensors have gotten increasingly compact and affordable and can now be found in almost every home (or on every watch) around the globe.
The rise in popularity of pulse oximeters and at-home sensors is due, in large part, to a collective increase in health consciousness. Medical technology continues to come on in leaps and bounds, allowing the general population access to at-home health gadgets that monitor their health, spot undetected conditions, and potentially prevent serious health prob