COPD Breathing Exercises for Clearing Airways

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If you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and simple activities of daily living have you "huffin' and a puffin'," then learning how to get the most out of every breath you take should be an essential part of your COPD action plan. How can you manage that? By doing breathing exercises that help optimize your energy.

What Is Dyspnea?

If you have COPD, you are probably familiar with dyspnea, or shortness of breath. This bothersome symptom is a result of air hunger that causes you to feel like you can't catch your breath. It is primarily due to a lack of oxygen in the bloodstream and is directly related to disturbances in your lungs caused by COPD.

Managing Dyspnea

If you become short of breath, it helps to be able to know what you can do about it:

  • Stop what you are doing and rest in a quiet, comfortable place.
  • Lower your head and your shoulders and try to relax.
  • Breathe in and out as fast as necessary, through your mouth.
  • Start to slow your exhalations by making them longer. Don't force them. Use pursed-lip breathing if it helps.
  • While you are trying to slow your breathing, start to breathe through your nose.
  • Begin diaphragmatic breathing when you are ready.
  • Stay in this position for 5 to 10 minutes until you have completely caught your breath.

Comfortable Positions to Try

Just can't get comfortable when short of breath? Here are some positions for you to try to help ease your discomfort:

  • Sitting: Find a comfortable chair to sit in. Sit with your back against the chair, while allowing your head and shoulders to drop forward. Rest your forearms on your thighs with your palms facing upwards. Make sure that your feet are flat on the floor with your knees rolled slightly outward. Do this until you are able to catch your breath.
  • Sitting With a Pillow: Sit in a comfortable chair. Place a pillow on a table in front of your where you are sitting. With your feet on the floor or on a stool, rest your head and arms on top of the pillow. You can also do this position while standing, with your arms resting on top of the kitchen counter, back of a chair or a high tabletop. If standing, remember to keep your knees slightly bent, with one foot slightly forward while you avoid leaning. Do this until your breathing is normal again.
  • Standing: With your feet slightly apart, stand with your back to a wall or pole. Keep your feet a comfortable distance from the wall, with your head and shoulders in a relaxed position. Do this until you are able to catch your breath.

    How to Control Your Breathing

    The main thing to remember when you become short of breath is to stay calm. This may be difficult for you to accomplish at first because gasping for breath can be a frightening experience.

    The following breathing techniques will become almost second nature to you if practiced for 5 to 10 minutes, several times each day. This will allow you to use them calmly and effectively during periods of distress:

    • Pursed-Lip Breathing Pursed-lip breathing is a breathing technique designed to help you control shortness of breath. Learn to master pursed-lip breathing so you can better manage your life.
    • Diaphragmatic Breathing Slightly more complicated than pursed-lip breathing, diaphragmatic breathing helps strengthen the diaphragm and the abdominal muscles allowing more air to move in and out of your lungs without tiring your chest muscles. Discover the technique of diaphragmatic breathing so you can improve your exercise tolerance and feel better.

    Controlled Coughing

    A primary symptom of COPD has increased mucus production. The presence of mucus in your airways contributes, in large part, to your shortness of breath. If the mucus continues to obstruct your airway, your breathing will become increasingly more difficult and an infection may occur. That's why it is important to know how to clear your airways, which can help you get rid of unwanted mucus.

    Used in conjunction with diaphragmatic breathing, controlled coughing helps you clear the mucus from your lungs, allowing you to breathe easier. Here's how to do it:

    1. Sit upright in a comfortable, quiet place.
    2. Allow your head to lean forward slightly.
    3. Place your feet firmly on the floor underneath you.
    4. Using diaphragmatic breathing, inhale deeply.
    5. Try to hold your breath for at least 3 seconds when you inhale.
    6. Open your mouth slightly, place your hand on your abdomen and, while gently pressing inward and upward against your diaphragm, cough once. A first cough should have moved the mucus to your throat. Now, cough again to remove the mucus from your throat.
    7. Spit the mucus into a tissue. If the mucus is green, brown, pink or bloody, contact your healthcare provider as this may indicate the presence of infection or other problems.
    8. Take a break and repeat as needed.
    9. Wash your hands using proper handwashing technique.

    While treatment for COPD should be governed by a competent healthcare provider, anything that you are able to do to help yourself along the way, like breathing exercises and airway clearance techniques, will only serve to make your life with COPD more enjoyable and easier to manage.

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