Exercise versus airway clearance techniques for people with cystic fibrosis

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Background: There are many accepted airway clearance techniques (ACTs) for managing the respiratory health of people with cystic fibrosis (CF); none of which demonstrate superiority. Other Cochrane Reviews have reported short-term effects related to mucus transport, but no evidence supporting long-term benefits. Exercise is an alternative ACT thought to produce shearing forces within the lung parenchyma, which enhances mucociliary clearance and the removal of viscous secretions. Recent evidence suggests that some people with CF are using exercise as a substitute for traditional ACTs, yet there is no agreed recommendation for this. Additionally, one of the top 10 research questions identified by people with CF is whether exercise can replace other ACTs. Systematically reviewing the evidence for exercise as a safe and effective ACT will help people with CF decide whether to incorporate this strategy into their treatment plans and potentially reduce their treatment burden. The timing of this review is especially pertinent given the shifting landscape of CF management with the advent of highly-effective small molecule therapies, which are changing the way people with CF are cared for. Objectives: To compare the effect of exercise to other ACTs for improving respiratory function and other clinical outcomes in people with CF and to assess the potential adverse effects associated with this ACT. Search methods: On 28 February 2022, we searched the Cochrane Cystic Fibrosis Trials Register, compiled from electronic database searches and handsearching of journals and conference abstract books. We also searched the reference lists of relevant articles and reviews. We searched online clinical trial registries on 15 February 2022. We emailed authors of studies awaiting classification or potentially eligible abstracts for additional information on 1 February 2021. Selection criteria: We selected randomised controlled studies (RCTs) and quasi-RCTs comparing exercise to another ACT in people with CF for at least two treatment sessions. Data collection and analysis: Two review authors independently extracted data and assessed risk of bias for the included studies. They assessed the certainty of the evidence using GRADE. Review authors contacted investigators for further relevant information regarding their publications. Main results: We included four RCTs. The 86 participants had a wide range of disease severity (forced expiratory volume in one second (FEV1) ranged from 54% to 95%) and were 7 to 41 years old. Two RCTs were cross-over and two were parallel in design. Participants in one RCT were hospitalised with an acute respiratory exacerbation, whilst the participants in three RCTs were clinically stable. All four RCTs compared exercise either alone or in combination with another ACT, but these were too diverse to allow us to combine results. The certainty of the evidence was very low; we downgraded it due to low participant numbers and high or unclear risks of bias across all domains. Exercise versus active cycle of breathing technique (ACBT). One cross-over trial (18 participants) compared exercise alone to ACBT. There was no change from baseline in our primary outcome FEV1, although it increased in the exercise group before returning to baseline after 30 minutes; we are unsure if exercise affected FEV1 as the evidence is very low-certainty. Similar results were seen for other measures of lung function. No adverse events occurred during the exercise sessions (very low-certainty evidence). We are unsure if ACBT was perceived to be more effective or was the preferred ACT (very low-certainty evidence). 24-hour sputum volume was less in the exercise group than with ACBT (secondary outcome). Exercise capacity, quality of life, adherence, hospitalisations and need for additional antibiotics were not reported. Exercise plus postural drainage and percussion (PD&P) versus PD&P only. Two trials (55 participants) compared exercise and PD&P to PD&P alone. At two weeks, one trial narratively reported a greater increase in FEV1 % predicted with PD&P alone. At six months, the other trial reported a greater increase with exercise combined with PD&P, but did not provide data for the PD&P group. We are uncertain whether exercise with PD&P improves FEV1 as the certainty of evidence is very low. Other measures of lung function did not show clear evidence of effect. One trial reported no difference in exercise capacity (maximal work rate) after two weeks. No adverse events were reported (1 trial, 17 participants; very low-certainty evidence). Adherence was high, with all PD&P sessions and 96% of exercise sessions completed (1 trial, 17 participants; very low-certainty evidence). There was no difference between groups in 24-hour sputum volume or in the mean duration of hospitalisation, although the six-month trial reported fewer hospitalisations due to exacerbations in the exercise and PD&P group. Quality of life, ACT preference and need for antibiotics were not reported. Exercise versus underwater positive expiratory pressure (uPEP). One trial (13 participants) compared exercise to uPEP (also known as bubble PEP). No adverse events were recorded in either group (very low-certainty evidence). Trial investigators reported that participants perceived exercise as more fatiguing but also more enjoyable than bubble PEP (very low-certainty evidence). There were no differences found in the total weight of sputum collected during treatment sessions. The trial did not report the primary outcomes (FEV1, quality of life, exercise capacity) or the secondary outcomes (other measures of lung function, adherence, need for antibiotics or hospitalisations). Authors' conclusions: As one of the top 10 research questions identified by clinicians and people with CF, it is important to systematically review the literature regarding whether or not exercise is an acceptable and effective ACT, and whether it can replace traditional methods. We identified an insufficient number of trials to conclude whether or not exercise is a suitable alternative ACT, and the diverse design of included trials did not allow for meta-analysis of results. The evidence is very low-certainty, so we are uncertain about the effectiveness of exercise as an ACT. Longer studies examining outcomes that are important to people with CF are required to answer this question.




Heinz, K. D., Walsh, A., Southern, K. W., Johnstone, Z., & Regan, K. H. (2022, June 22). Exercise versus airway clearance techniques for people with cystic fibrosis. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. John Wiley and Sons Ltd. https://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.CD013285.pub2

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