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Measuring diaphragm thickness with ultrasound in mechanically ventilated patients: feasibility, reproducibility and validity



Ultrasound measurements of diaphragm thickness (T di) and thickening (TFdi) may be useful to monitor diaphragm activity and detect diaphragm atrophy in mechanically ventilated patients. We aimed to establish the reproducibility of measurements in ventilated patients and determine whether passive inflation by the ventilator might cause thickening apart from inspiratory effort.


Five observers measured T di and TFdi in 96 mechanically ventilated patients. The probe site was marked in 66 of the 96 patients. TFdi was measured at peak and end-inspiration (airway occluded and diaphragm relaxed) in nine healthy volunteers inhaling to varying lung volumes. The association with diaphragm electrical activity was quantified.


Right hemidiaphragm thickness was obtained on 95 % of attempts; left hemidiaphragm measurements could not be obtained consistently. Right hemidiaphragm thickness measurements were highly reproducible (mean ± SD 2.4 ± 0.8 mm, repeatability coefficient 0.2 mm, reproducibility coefficient 0.4 mm), particularly after marking the location of the probe. TFdi measurements were only moderately reproducible (median 11 %, IQR 3–17 %, repeatability coefficient 17 %, reproducibility coefficient 16 %). TFdi and diaphragm electrical activity were positively correlated, r 2 = 0.32, p < 0.01). At inspiratory volumes below 50 % of inspiratory capacity, passive inflation did not cause diaphragm thickening. TFdi was considerably lower in patients on either partially assisted or controlled ventilation compared to healthy subjects (median 11 vs. 35 %, p < 0.001).


Ultrasound measurements of right hemidiaphragm thickness are feasible and highly reproducible in ventilated patients. At clinically relevant inspiratory volumes, diaphragm thickening reflects muscular contraction and not passive inflation. This technique can be reliably employed to monitor diaphragm thickness, activity, and function during mechanical ventilation.

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This study was funded by an operating grant from the Physician Services Incorporated Foundation (Toronto, Canada). E.G. is supported by a Post-Doctoral Fellowship from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

Conflicts of interest

On behalf of all the authors, the corresponding author states that there is no conflict of interest.

Author information

Correspondence to Niall D. Ferguson.

Additional information

Take-home message:

Diaphragm ultrasound measurements are feasible and highly reproducible in mechanically ventilated patients and provide a valid measure of diaphragm activity during mechanical ventilation. Many ventilated patients exhibit much lower diaphragm activity levels compared to resting tidal breathing in healthy subjects.

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Goligher, E.C., Laghi, F., Detsky, M.E. et al. Measuring diaphragm thickness with ultrasound in mechanically ventilated patients: feasibility, reproducibility and validity. Intensive Care Med 41, 642–649 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00134-015-3687-3

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  • Diaphragm
  • Artificial respiration
  • Ultrasonography
  • Ventilator weaning