How COPD Affects Breathing

One of the most common questions asked by people with COPD is how it affects breathing. To understand this, it’s first worth understanding how your lungs work.

How your lungs work

As you breathe in, you bring air down through your windpipe and into your airways. Your airways then branch out in your lungs into thinner tubes, called bronchioles. And at the end of your bronchioles are small air sacs.

Running along the walls of your air sacs are small blood vessels, or capillaries. When the air you breathe in reaches your air sacs, the oxygen passes through the air sac wall and into the blood in the capillaries. As this is happening the waste product carbon dioxide (CO2) moves from the capillaries and into the air sacs. This process is called gas exchange; bringing vital oxygen in to the body while removing the waste CO2.

How COPD affects breathing

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease is a group of lung conditions used to describe progressive lung diseases. These include emphysema, chronic bronchitis, non-reversible asthma, and some forms of bronchiectasis. All conditions cause breathing difficulties. If you have COPD you’ll know how difficult it is to empty air out of your lungs. This is because your airways have narrowed.

In a person without COPD, their healthy airways and air sacs are stretchy. After filling with air they will bounce back after being emptied. This elasticity helps to move air quickly in and out of the lungs.

However in a person with COPD, their airways and air sacs are no longer stretchy. They no longer bounce back. They also become swollen, thicker, and produce more mucus, making it harder to get air out of the lungs. This is what causes the symptoms of wheezing, chesty cough and breathlessness.

How COPD is treated

Unfortunately damage caused by COPD is permanent. However there are treatments that can help to stop it from progressing. Symptoms can also be managed. So with prevention the key to living with COPD, pulmonary rehabilitation is a hugely beneficial treatment.

Treatments include medication, inhalers and pulmonary rehab, including breathing exercises. Part of a Pulmonary Rehab Toolkit (Lung Foundation Australia) is Inspiratory Muscle Training (IMT), such as POWERbreathe. In fact there are many clinical studies showing the benefits of IMT for COPD. One such study concluded,

“…during IMT in patients with significant COPD, there is an increase in exercise capacity, improvement in quality of life, and decrease in dyspnea. The study also provides evidence that long-term IMT can decrease the use of health services and hospitalization days.”

Pulmonary Rehabilitation Toolkit
Pulmonary Rehabilitation Toolkit

Inspiratory Muscle Training (IMT)

A clinical study, published in the official journal of the American College of Chest Physicians, assessed The Effects of 1 Year of Specific Inspiratory Muscle Training in Patients With COPD.

Using POWERbreathe IMT it found improvements in patients with COPD, of:

  • Inspiratory muscle strength of 55%
  • Endurance of 86%
  • Quality of life by 21%
  • Dyspnoea (difficult or laboured breathing) by 36%