Physical Therapist treatment for COPD, which includes breathing training and exercise, can help improve the quality of life for people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) stated in recognition of November’s National COPD Awareness Month.

COPD, also called emphysema or chronic bronchitis, is a serious lung disease that over time makes it difficult for a person to breathe. For people who have COPD, the airways (tubes that carry air in and out of the lungs) are partially blocked, which makes it difficult to expel air. COPD is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States, with more women than men dying of the disease. The number of people living with COPD is increasing.

“The goal of Physical Therapist treatment of COPD is to help people manage their illness and prevent the need for hospitalization,” said Donna Frownfelter, PT, DPT, MA, CCS,FCCP, RRT, program director and assistant professor of Physical Therapy at the Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science/The College of Health Professions in North Chicago, Illinois.

Physical Therapist treatment is part of a pulmonary rehabilitation program that helps individuals achieve their optimal level of activity and function. Physical Therapists use breathing training methods such as diaphragmatic breathing, pursed-lip breathing, and breathing combined with trunk movement along with physical activity to help patients “get through” periods when they feel short of breath. Exercise training for COPD often includes aerobic exercise, such as walking or using a stationary bike, and muscle-strengthening exercises for arms and legs.

According to Frownfelter, “Physical Therapist management is particularly beneficial for patients who are medically frail and cannot initially be part of an outpatient program.” Beginning with symptom-limited exercise, Physical Therapists will gradually increase patients’ strength and endurance.

COPD most often occurs in people age 40 or older who are either current or former smokers. Other causes of COPD include long-term exposure to irritants such as chemicals, dust, or fumes in the workplace. Heavy or long-term exposure to secondhand smoke or other air pollutants also may contribute to COPD. In some people, COPD is caused by a genetic condition known as alpha-1 antitrypsin, or AAT, deficiency. Symptoms of COPD include frequent coughing, sometimes called “smoker’s cough,” shortness of breath while doing usual activities, excess sputum production, a feeling of not being able to breathe, not feeling in control of breathing, and wheezing.

When COPD is severe, shortness of breath and other symptoms can get in the way of doing even the most basic tasks, such taking a walk, bathing, and getting dressed. COPD develops slowly, and can worsen over time. Many people consider shortness of breath and fatigue to be part of the normal aging process, but that is not the case. If you have shortness of breath or cough associated with fatigue, or if you are at risk for COPD, you may want to consider speaking to your physician about being tested for the disease.

Physical Therapists are health care professionals who diagnose and manage individuals of all ages, from newborns to elders, who have medical problems or other health-related conditions that limit their abilities to move and perform functional activities in their daily lives. Physical Therapists examine each individual and develop a plan of care using treatment techniques to promote the ability to move, reduce pain, restore function, and prevent disability. Physical Therapists also work with individuals to prevent the loss of mobility by developing fitness- and wellness-oriented programs for healthier and more active lifestyles.