What is COPD?

Sep 29, 2021 1:33am

If you, or someone you know, has difficulty breathing, you may have heard the term Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). If not, you might be more familiar with some of the diseases that come under the COPD umbrella, including emphysema and chronic bronchitis. In this article, we will cover the differences between these diseases and the ways that COPD can be managed, with particular focus on how physiotherapy can help with this condition.


What is COPD?

COPD is a chronic inflammatory lung disease that causes obstructed airflow from the lungs. This results in increased difficulty to breathe. COPD is a progressive disease and does not currently have a cure. However, there are many things you can do to effectively manage the condition. This will help you to live a normal, active life, that isn’t limited by breathing difficulties.


COPD, Emphysema, Bronchitis. What’s the difference?

COPD is an umbrella term which covers several lung conditions including emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

Emphysema is a condition where the air sacs (alveoli) of the lungs are damaged. This interferes with how well the oxygen we breathe can get into the blood and be transported around the body. Getting oxygen into our blood is essential to provide energy for the body, supporting the immune system and the function of organs, muscles, and other bodily tissues.

Bronchitis occurs when the bronchial tubes are irritated and swollen. If mucus comes up with the cough and the cough lasts at least 3 months to two years, this is chronic bronchitis. Due to persistent coughing with chronic bronchitis, tiny hairs (cilia) that help move mucus up the bronchial tubes are destroyed, which can lead to a build-up of mucus in the lungs. The combination of inflammation and narrowing of the bronchial tubes leads to difficulty breathing.

Image Credit: https://blogs.biomedcentral.com/on-medicine/2017/06/06/the-many-inflammatory-faces-of-chronic-obstructive-pulmonary-disease-copd-cannot-be-diagnosed-by-simple-testing/

What causes COPD?

COPD is most often caused by breathing in toxins or poisons. Smoking (tobacco) is the number one cause of COPD in Western countries. While not everyone who smokes gets COPD, most of the individuals with COPD have smoked. Stopping smoking can slow the progression of COPD. Stopping smoking can improve breathing and coughing.

COPD can also be caused by breathing in dusts, fumes, or chemicals over a long period of time. Harmful materials at work may include ammonia, asbestos, carbon monoxide and fumes. Toxins found at home can include smoke, cleaning products, spray products, mold and bacteria. Avoiding these harmful toxins can assist with reducing your risk of developing COPD or exacerbating symptoms of COPD.

Your genes may also play a role in the development of COPD. For instance, Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency (AATD) is a genetic factor that has been identified as increasing your risk for COPD.


Treatment of COPD

The main goal of the treatment of COPD is to manage the symptoms, improve quality of life, reduce exacerbations, and improve mortality. Medications can be used to assist with maintaining airways and non-medicated treatments including smoking cessation and pulmonary rehabilitation is also recommended.

While there is currently no cure for COPD, treatment is generally more successful if diagnosed earlier. A person may have COPD but not notice symptoms until it is in the moderate stages. If you have any suspicion that you could have COPD, it is important to ask your doctor about testing. Especially if you are a former smoker, you have been exposed to harmful lung irritants for a long period of time, or you have a history of COPD in your family.

Here at Be Mobile Physiotherapy, we love to chat about the benefits of physiotherapy and exercise in the management of many chronic conditions, including COPD. There are many studies that show evidence for the benefits of pulmonary rehabilitation for those with COPD. Thomas et.al. (2010) found that a home-based physiotherapy program was effective at reducing breathlessness during activities in people with severe COPD. Skinner (2009) found there were significant benefits for strength and endurance exercise in the rehabilitation of those with COPD.

Exercise has many benefits for someone with COPD, including:

  •         Improve circulation, to help the body better use oxygen
  •         Improve COPD symptoms
  •         Increase energy levels
  •         Strengthen the heart and cardiovascular system
  •         Increase endurance
  •         Lower blood pressure
  •         Improve muscle strength
  •         Improve bone density
  •         Improve balance
  •         Reduce body fat
  •         Help reduce stress, anxiety and depression
  •         Improve sleep

It is clear that regular exercise should be a major component of your management plan if you do have COPD. In fact, people with COPD should be aiming to meet the same physical activity guidelines of 150 minutes aerobic activity and 2 resistance training (strength) sessions per week.

So if you think we could help, or if you found this information particularly useful then let us know!


 Skinner, M, "Strength and endurance exercise endorsed for people with COPD.". in Physical Therapy Reviews, 14, 2009, 418-418.

 Thomas, M, J Simpson, R Riley, & E Grant, "The impact of home-based physiotherapy interventions on breathlessness during activities of daily living in severe COPD: A systematic review.". in Physiotherapy, 96, 2010, 108-119.