What Is Pulmonary Rehabilitation?

We’ve all heard of cardiac rehabilitation. You know, it’s for people who have had a heart attack, to help them recover after an event or medical procedure, right? Well, what about those who struggle with lung problems? It’s not like a heart problem that comes on suddenly and can be life threatening.  Lung problems develop slowly over time, and those suffer in with emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and long-term asthma, also known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), can feel there is no help for them. In fact, people with COPD often feel their lung disease is their fault, mostly because they were or are cigarette smokers. While cigarettes are a factor for COPD, they are not the only reason it occurs. Heredity plays a big part, and occupational hazards, like exposures to dust, chemicals, and fumes, also contribute to lung disease. We don’t blame diabetics for eating sugar or those with heart disease for not managing their stress better. I don’t see the need to blame smokers either. COPD has risen to the number 3 killer in the United States. And while the mortality rates for heart attacks and strokes (the number 1 and 2 killers) are decreasing, the rate for COPD continues to rise.

So, what is pulmonary rehabilitation? Like cardiac rehabilitation, pulmonary rehab offers exercise and education to help those struggling with COPD learn skills that can help them cope with their lung disease and improve the quality of their lives. What’s important to understand is that every time a person with COPD has an episode or exacerbation, they lose ground physically. As their breathing worsens, they stop doing some of the things they like to do. Over time, they start doing less and less, until they can’t even do some of their basic self-care, like bathing or dressing.

As our body and muscles become deconditioned, our ability to breathe also worsens. It takes more energy for oxygen to move through deconditioned muscles. A decrease in muscular strength also means we are less able to fight off infections. We need to stay strong to live with COPD! Pulmonary rehab is about stopping that progression and even reversing it. How? By getting people to slowly bring exercise back into their lives. Typically, pulmonary rehab programs run for twelve weeks and develop exercises specific to the person’s needs. For example, if a person with COPD gets short of breath with walking, seated exercises would be used to first increase muscle tone and overall core strength. Additionally, if the person is severely deconditioned, exercise might only be for two minutes at a time with frequent rests.

Besides the exercise, education is a key component of pulmonary rehab. The individual will learn many breathing techniques to calm shortness of breath, help with cough and phlegm removal, and improve the activities of daily living. They will learn how to fuel their bodies to breathe better and either gain or lose weight. And they will develop skills to conserve energy, so they can have more for the things they want to do.

As a registered respiratory therapist, I am trained to work with all types of critical and chronic lung conditions. I have forty years’ experience in the hospital setting and over twenty years working in pulmonary rehab.  As a life-long asthmatic, I know how it feels to be short of breath and bring my personal as well as my professional experiences. In fact, my passion for working with patients experiencing pulmonary issues stems from my personal experience and from watching my mom struggle with cigarette addition.

So, is pulmonary rehabilitation right for you?

Do you struggle to catch your breath, more and more frequently? Have you stopped doing the things you love? Don’t wait! Learn how pulmonary rehabilitation can help you and your family better cope with your lung disease.

Pulmonary rehabilitation programs are typically run as hospital outpatient programs and ordered by a physician, but individuals can also refer themselves to a program. A breathing test showing moderate to very severe lung disease is also required by most insurances. Both Sacred Heart and Mayo Hospitals offer pulmonary rehab, as well St. Joseph’s in Chippewa Falls. Contact your personal physician or the rehab program at one of these hospitals to get started.

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