Hyperinflated Lungs and COPD

What to know about this common complication

Doctor Auscultating a Patient
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If you have the chronic obstructive pulmonary disease ( COPD), you're at an increased risk for a number of complications, including hyperinflated lungs. Most people with COPD have some degree of hyperinflation of the lungs, regardless of the severity of their condition. But should you worry? Here are the basics about the complication, including what it is, what causes it, and how hyperinflated lungs can affect your health.

What is Hyperinflation of the Lungs?

In most cases, hyperinflation of the lungs occurs when a patient starts to inhale before the last breath was fully exhaled. This results in the excess air getting trapped in the lungs with each subsequent breath, causing them to inflate more than they should and work less efficiently. Hyperinflated lungs often remain undetected in people with COPD, unless they get a chest X-ray.

Static vs. Dynamic Hyperinflation

There are two types of lung hyperinflation: static and dynamic. Static hyperinflation occurs due to decreased elasticity of the lungs. The alveoli, which are tiny sacs in the lungs that regulate the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide, and the airways of healthy lungs are more elastic, which keeps airways open during exhalation. When the lungs lose their elasticity, the lungs need more volume in order to perform their normal recoil functions. This shift puts more pressure on the chest wall and the lungs and can cause problems. This type of hyperinflation tends to occur in only the most severe cases of COPD.

The more common type of hyperinflation that occurs in people with COPD is called dynamic hyperinflation. This happens when someone begins his or her inhales before fully exhaling. Over time, more and more air gets trapped within the lungs with each breath, causing the lungs to expand beyond their normal range. This occurs in people with COPD because of narrowing of the airways, inflammation and mucus plugging that can increase the time it takes to fully exhale.

How Hyperinflated Lungs Affect Your Health

As mentioned, most people with COPD have hyperinflated lungs but don't know it. They do not feel like there is anything wrong and will not notice any particular health complications, aside from typical COPD symptoms. However, in some, hyperinflation can seriously hinder breathing. In these cases, drastic improvements can be seen in patients after lung volume reduction surgery, a procedure in which excess tissue is removed from the lungs to make them work more efficiently.

If you have COPD, talk to your doctor to find out if you might be at risk for experiencing side effects of hyperinflated lungs.

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Article Sources

  • Gary T. Ferguson " Why Does the Lung Hyperinflate? " Proceedings of the American Thoracic Society, Vol.3, No.2(2006), pp. 176-179.
  • Mayo Clinic. (2014, November 14). Emphysema: A recent chest X-ray showed that I have hyperinflated lungs. What could cause this? 
  • University of Southern California. (n.d.). Emphysema Treatment: Lung Volume Reduction Surgery (LVRS).