Easy Ways to Improve COPD Symptoms
If you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), chances are, you’re having a hard time breathing. After all, difficulty breathing is the hallmark sign.
You’re likely on an inhaler or two, and with any luck, they work well! My guess, though, is that they don’t work well all of the time. That’s probably why you’re reading this article, right?
Well, friends, you’re in luck.
I can’t promise these tips and tricks will help everyone, but I hope that you can utilize some of the information in this article, in conjunction with your prescribed medications, to breathe just a little bit easier.
But first, let’s discuss COPD just a little bit. It helps to understand very basic pathophysiology.
In my professional experience, my patients with COPD understood that they had COPD, but they didn’t quite know what was happening inside their lungs. Understanding this can help you understand why some of these tips and tricks are helpful.
Our lungs are comprised of many different bronchial tubes, which then branch out into tiny bronchioles. At the end of the bronchioles are tiny sacs called alveoli – there are an estimated 300 million alveoli in the lungs.
Each alveoli has capillaries that surround it. These capillaries allow for gas transfer – oxygen and carbon dioxide can make their exchange here.
In someone without COPD, when we take a breath, the alveoli fill up with air and resemble balloons. When we exhale, the alveoli deflate.
However, when someone has COPD, there is a decreased amount of oxygen flowing through the airways. Medical News Today states that the reasons for this are as follows:
- The bronchial tubes, bronchiole tubes, and alveoli may have lost their elasticity.
- The walls between the alveoli are damaged or have been destroyed.
- The airways, in general, may be inflamed and/or thickened.
- Excess mucus is produced in the lungs, causing the airways to clog.
Now that we’ve discussed the very basic pathophysiology let’s discuss ways to breathe a little bit better.
Take Your Medications as Prescribed
It may sound obvious, but the first thing you should be doing is taking your prescribed inhaler and any oral medications as prescribed.
You may be thinking, “Duh. Why is this even included? Give me something I can use!”
Well, if you’re like one-third of Medicare patients, you may not be filling all of your prescriptions due to cost. This estimation comes from a survey from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston – in 2006. And drug costs have only gone up since then, so that figure may have only increased.
Plenty of people choose between filling their prescriptions and paying the rent and groceries. Or they will spread out their medication doses so that their prescriptions last longer.
Unfortunately, not using your inhaler can mean not breathing effectively. Fortunately, there may be help.
For example, if you take a Spiriva, Combivent, Atrovent, Striverdi, or Sciolto inhaler, Boehringer Ingelheim offers prescription assistance to its customers. Click here for more information.
Fifth Season Financial has also compiled a list of financial assistance programs. These programs can be used for people suffering from asthma or COPD. Click here for more information.
Remember – you must be able to breathe, so find the means, if possible, to take your medications as prescribed.
Learn Some Breathing Techniques
There are a variety of different breathing exercises for COPD that will help you breathe easier.
While there are quite a few techniques that you may find helpful (and you can experiment and find what works best for you!), there are several that are known to decrease anxiety – bonus!
Pursed-lips breathing is one such breathing technique. You can use this method when you are feeling short of breath and anxious.
Here are the steps to perform pursed-lips breathing:
- Take a breath quickly through the nose – the breath should take about two seconds.
- Breathe out slowly through the mouth, with pursed lips. This technique helps to keep airways open. The exhalation should be at least three times as long as the inhalation.
- Repeat the pursed-lips breathing technique several times until you are feeling less short of breath and more relaxed.
Belly breathing is also useful! You may think this sounds strange – after all, we breathe through our lungs, right? With belly breathing, we’re seeking to improve the function of the diaphragm – the muscle between the bottom of the lungs and the belly.
Here’s how to perform belly breathing:
- Place one hand on the stomach and one on the chest.
- Breathe in through the nose – note that your belly is pushing forward.
- On the exhale, gently push on the abdomen with your hand to force the air out.
- Belly breathing can be performed in conjunction with pursed-lips breathing.
Learn How to Cough
Now, this may seem like a crazy tip because a common symptom of COPD is coughing – but, hear me out!
When we feel the need to cough, it is reflexive, and we do it without really thinking about it. When we have a controlled cough, it can serve a purpose.
As you remember from learning about COPD pathophysiology, COPD causes excess mucus to be produced, and this causes the airways to become clogged. The controlled cough can effectively clear some of this mucus, improving breathing.
To perform a controlled cough…
- Sit upright. It helps to have your arms folded over your belly.
- Breathe in slowly through the nose while leaning forward, pressing your arms against your belly.
- While in this position, cough two to three times – the coughs should be short and sharp.
- Again, breathe in slowly and sniff to prevent mucus from going back into your lungs.
I’ll keep this short because if you’re a smoker with COPD, chances are you’ve had “the talk” with every physician you’ve come in contact with.
As an RN, I’ve worked with lots of patients with COPD. Many continue to smoke. Their rationale is that they already have COPD, so why quit now?
Well, research indicates that COPD does cause irreversible damage to the lungs, but stopping smoking can prevent further harm from occurring. Studies also suggest that COPD smokers who ultimately quit the habit end up having fewer COPD exacerbations, have less risk of dying from COPD, and have fewer hospitalizations.
Oh, and quitting smoking cuts back on your risk of a myriad of other diseases, such as lung cancer, heart disease, and stroke, to name a few.