An Overview of Hyperinflated Lungs

What to Know About Pulmonary Hyperinflation

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Pulmonary hyperinflation is when air gets trapped in the lungs, causing causes them to overinflate. This, in turn, reduces the amount of oxygen circulating in the body. Pulmonary hyperinflation is most commonly associated with chronic obstructive lung disease (COPD), Aside from breathing problems, it can sometimes lead to heart failure.

This article looks at the symptoms and causes of this serious lung condition as well as how pulmonary hyperinflation is diagnosed and treated.

Hyperinflated Lung Symptoms

Laura Porter / Verywell

Symptoms

It can often be hard to distinguish symptoms of pulmonary hyperinflation from those of the underlying condtion that caused it.

If you have hyperinflated lungs, you may experience:

  • Difficulty inhaling
  • Struggling to breath
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Low energy

Exercise intolerance (the reduced ability to exercise) is common with lung hyperinflation. You may feel exhausted and short of breath even with normal activity. In the early stages, extreme exercise intolerance may be the very first sign of pulmonary hyperinflation.

Complications

One of the biggest concerns about lung hyperinflation is that can affect the function of the heart. With hyperinflation, the increased pressure within the chest cavity (thorax) can cause changes to the left ventricle of the heart over time,

These changes can reduce the ventricle's ability to pump blood out of the heart, leading to heart failure.

Recap

With pulmonary hypertension, the overinflation of the lungs can cause shortness of breath, fatigue, exercise intolerance, and difficulty inhaling. People with chronic hyperinflation have an increased risk of heart failure.

Causes

The major cause of hyperinflated lungs is COPD, a lung disease characterized by three conditions:

  • Emphysema: The irreversible enlargement and destruction of the air sacs of the lungs, called alveoli
  • Chronic bronchitis: The narrowing and clogging of the two main airways of the lungs, called the bronchi, due to long-standing inflammation

Other causes include:

Recap

COPD is the most common cause of pulmonary hypertension, although it can occur with other lung diseases like asthma, bronchiectasis, bronchiolitis, and cystic fibrosis.

Diagnosis

The diagnosis of pulmonary hyperinflation typically involves a physical exam, a review of your medical history, and imaging tests.

As part of the physical exam, the doctor will listen for strange breath sounds with a stethoscope, including those indicating valve regurgitation or a heart murmur. A person with hyperinflated lungs may also have a "barrel chest" in which the chest appears inflated all the time.

Lung hyperinflation can be detected with imaging tests, including:

Your doctor may perform pulmonary function tests (PFTs), a series of non-invasive tests that show how well your lungs are working. PFTs measure lung volume, lung capacity, rates of airflow, and the exchange of gases.

Because of the non-specificity of symptoms, pulmonary hyperinflation can be difficult to diagnose and typically requires a pulmonologist who specializes in diseases of the lungs.

Recap

Pulmonary hyperinflation can be diagnosed with a combination of a physical exam, a review of your medical history, imaging tests, and pulmonary functions tests (PFTs).

Treatment

There are several treatments used in the treatment of lung hyperinflation, some of which are more invasive than others. These include:

Recap

Depending on the severity of pulmonary hyperinflation, the treatment may involve bronchodilators, breathing exercises, oxygen therapy, and lung-volume reduction surgery.

Summary

Pulmonary hyperinflation is a condition associated with COPD and other lung diseases which causes them to overinflate. This can lead to shortness of breath, fatigue, difficulty inhaling, and exercise intolerance. Asthma, cystic fibrosis, and bronchiectasis are other possible causes.

Pulmonary hyperinflation can diagnose with a physical exam, imaging tests, and pulmonary function tests (PFTs). Depending on its severity, pulmonary hyperinflation can be treated with bronchodilators, breathing exercises, oxygen therapy, or lung-volume reduction surgery.

A Word From Verywell

It can be distressing to be diagnosed with lung hyperinflation, especially if you are already living with COPD. But, there are things you can do help manage your symptoms and reduce your risk of complications.

This includes quitting cigarettes, avoiding secondhand smoke and airborne pollutants, and taking your COPD medications as prescribed.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do breathing techniques help with hyperinflated lungs?

    Exercises like pursed lip-breathing have been found to improve oxygen saturation at rest in people with COPD. One small study found that it also increased exercise tolerance and endurance and even increased airway capacity in some.

  • At what stage of COPD does lung hyperinflation occur?

    Lung hyperinflation can occur in any stage of COPD, but it tends to be more severe in the advanced stages. Studies have found that dynamic hyperinflation (in which you start a new breath before fully exhaling) is present in all stages of COPD.

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4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Hui S, How CH, Tee A. Does this patient really have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease?. Singapore Med J. 2015;56(4):194-6. doi:10.11622/smedj.2015058

  3. Cabral LF, D'Elia Tda C, Marins Dde S, Zin WA, Guimarães FS. Pursed lip breathing improves exercise tolerance in COPD: a randomized crossover study. Eur J Phys Rehabil Med. 2015;51(1):79-88.

  4. Gagnon P, Guenette JA, Langer D, et al. Pathogenesis of hyperinflation in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Int J Chron Obstruct Pulmon Dis. 2014;9:187–201.

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