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November 21, 2006 > Pulmonary Rehabilitation Helps Patients Breathe Easier

Pulmonary Rehabilitation Helps Patients Breathe Easier

November is COPD Awareness Month

Each breath we take in delivers needed oxygen to our lungs; each breath out removes waste products like carbon dioxide. The seemingly simple act of breathing keeps us alive, and there is nothing that compares to the feeling of not being able to breathe. For people with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder (COPD), this feeling can be a daily battle.

COPD, a group of diseases that include chronic bronchitis and emphysema, results in an obstruction to airflow exiting the lungs. In 2001, November was chosen to be National COPD Awareness Month, which helps raise awareness of a disease attributed to 119,000 deaths, 726,000 hospitalizations, and 1.5 million hospital emergency department visits in 2000, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) statistics.

While it is a leading cause of death, illness, and disability in the United States, COPD is commonly known as the “forgotten disease” – despite the fact that the CDC predicts it will become the third leading cause of death in the U.S. by 2020.

“COPD is the fourth leading cause of death and the second leading cause of major disability, but with early detection we can turn these numbers around,” says Margaret Chaika, respiratory care practitioner and coordinator of Washington Hospital’s Pulmonary Rehabilitation Program.

Early detection of COPD involves knowing the symptoms if you are at risk for the disease, as well as following up with your health care provider for a breathing test known as spirometry, which measures air flow and volume as indicators of lung health.

In addition to a breathing test, Chaika also says having a chest X-ray, providing your physician with a complete medical history, as well as receiving regular physicals can help diagnose COPD early.

The good news is that a breathing test is non-invasive and can be done at your doctor’s office using a spirometer, a device used to measure lung health.

COPD, primarily caused by a history of smoking, can cause symptoms such as shortness of breath, known as dyspnea; chronic cough; and mucus production accompanied by coughing and/or wheezing, according to Chaika.

“Be honest with your physician about how short of breath you are and how it affects your activities of daily living,” Chaika says of those who may have symptoms of COPD. “If you can’t walk up the stairs, shop for groceries or do the laundry because you’re short of breath, talk to your doctor about a breathing test.”

Other activities of daily living, also known as ADL, that might be affected by COPD include: bathing or showering, dressing, preparing meals and personal hygiene and grooming.

If you find yourself short of breath performing any of these functions – or find that you are avoiding certain tasks you used to enjoy – because of difficulty breathing, admit it to yourself and seek help early, Chaika says.

If you have been diagnosed with COPD, it’s important to ask to be evaluated by a local pulmonary rehabilitation program, according to Chaika, who notes that Medicare will often cover the cost of the program for those whose breathing test numbers qualify them.

“Outcomes (after pulmonary rehabilitation) show people have less exacerbation and fewer visits to the ER,” Chaika says, adding that, “You can have COPD and still be a pulmonary athlete, but it takes work.”

Many of Chaika’s patients, when they first enter the Pulmonary Rehabilitation Program at Washington Hospital, are unable to perform basic tasks without laboring for breath. Chaika says that after rehabilitation, some of her patients have returned to the hospital as volunteers.

If prescribed medications have not done enough to improve lung function, pulmonary rehabilitation, Chaika explains, helps make the heart and lungs more efficient through breathing training and lung health education, as well as an exercise program that can be used both at home and during rehabilitation sessions.

The best way to prevent the diseases associated with COPD is to quit smoking, although a minority of cases can be attributed to occupational and environmental hazards, such as prolonged exposure to dusts and chemicals, smoke from home cooking and heating fuel.

If you have COPD, Chaika suggests taking the following steps:

  1. Remember to breathe! Do not hold your breath.

  2. If you smoke, get help to quit.

  3. Know your breathing test numbers.

  4. Talk to your physician about entering pulmonary rehabilitation.

  5. Join the Better Breathing for Life Club.

The Better Breathing for Life Club is a monthly support group for people who have a chronic lung disease, such as chronic asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, COPD, pulmonary fibrosis or any other restricted lung disease. Family members and loved ones are welcome to attend. To be added to the Better Breathing for Life Club’s mailing list, call (510) 494-7025 and press “2” when prompted if you reach a recording.

To see a schedule of upcoming support group meetings, call Washington Hospital’s Health Connection line at (800) 963-7070 to receive a free copy of the Health & Wellness Catalog, which contains a listing of classes, support groups, programs and services.

To learn more about Washington Hospital’s Pulmonary Rehabilitation Program, visit, click on “Services & Programs,” and select “Pulmonary Rehabilitation” from the drop-down menu.

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