HCA Houston Healthcare - November 17, 2021
by Tayla Holman
A woman practices diaphragmatic breathing exercises

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) refers to a group of diseases, such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis, that cause airflow blockages and breathing-related problems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

When you have COPD, there are a few things you can do to help manage or reduce your symptoms. Diaphragmatic breathing exercises, among other practices, can help make breathing a little easier.

What are the risk factors for COPD?

According to the American Lung Association (ALA), the main cause of COPD is smoking, although nonsmokers can get it as well. COPD can also be caused by pollution and irritants in the environment. According to the CDC, nearly 15.7 million Americans (6.4% of the population) reported that they had been diagnosed with COPD, but more than half of adults with low pulmonary function were not aware that they had COPD.

Symptoms of COPD include:

  • Frequent coughing or wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Trouble taking a deep breath
  • Excess phlegm or mucus

Although COPD was previously suspected to be more common in men, since 2000, more women in the United States have died from COPD than men, according to the CDC. Women tend to be diagnosed later than men, and may also be more vulnerable to the effects of tobacco and other substances that can cause COPD, such as air pollution.

Other groups that were more likely to report COPD include:

  • American Indians/Alaska natives
  • Multiracial non-Hispanics
  • People who are retired, unemployed or unable to work
  • People with a history of asthma

How can diaphragmatic breathing exercises help COPD?

The diaphragm is a muscle at the base of the chest, below the heart and lungs, that helps you inhale and exhale. According to the ALA, over time the lungs of people with COPD lose "springiness," which can cause air to get trapped. Stale air builds up and the diaphragm has less room to contract and bring in fresh oxygen.

To compensate for the diaphragm not working at full capacity, the body uses other muscles in the neck, back and chest for breathing. However, this leads to lower oxygen levels and less oxygen reserves for exercise and physical activity.

By practicing breathing exercises regularly, you can help rid your lungs of stale air and increase your oxygen levels.

Breathing exercises for COPD

There are a few breathing exercises known to help ease the symptoms of COPD.

The first is called belly breathing or diaphragmatic breathing. Start by inhaling through your nose. Then, breathe out through your mouth for two to three times as long as you inhaled. You may want to put your hands on your stomach so you can be sure that it is rising and falling.

This method of breathing will help retrain your diaphragm to fill and empty your lungs, according to the ALA. It may take practice to get this technique just right, and you might feel tired at first. Start off slow and increase the amount of time you spend doing this exercise as you get more comfortable.

Another breathing exercise that can help with COPD is called pursed lip breathing. Keeping your mouth closed, breathe in through your nose and count to two. Next, purse your lips together as if you are about to whistle or blow out birthday candles. Slowly breathe out through your lips while counting to four.

Other ways to help with COPD

Beyond breathing exercises, there are a few other ways to help manage or slow COPD. If you smoke, the most effective action you can take to manage COPD is to quit smoking. You can speak with your doctor if you need help quitting smoking.

Another helpful way to manage COPD is to try improving the air quality in your home. Irritants in the air can make breathing difficult for people with COPD. Limit the use of household chemicals or buy an air filtration system to keep your air clean.

Although there isn't a cure for COPD, using breathing exercises or limiting your exposure to air pollution and irritants can help you manage your symptoms.

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