Jeff Harr: Health Matters: Pulmonary rehabilitation 101

Did you know it was just recently Pulmonary Rehabilitation Week?

More than 12 million Americans have been diagnosed with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease and another 12 million are likely to have COPD, but have not yet been diagnosed. COPD is a serious lung disease that, over time, makes it hard to breathe. Often known by other names, such as emphysema or chronic bronchitis, COPD causes a patient's airways, or tubes that carry air in and out of the lungs, to be narrowed, making it difficult to breathe.

While a majority of COPD cases are caused by cigarette smoking, other factors can contribute to the disease. These include long-term exposure to air pollution, fumes and chemicals (often work-related), or second-hand smoke. A very small percentage of patients are diagnosed with a rare form of COPD, alpha-1 deficiency-related emphysema. This is a genetic condition which affects a patient's ability to create a protein protecting the lungs.

Most patients will initially believe their symptoms to be a result of aging, i.e., shortness of breath, wheezing, etc. However, these symptoms may point to something more serious. If you think you suffer with mild symptoms, tell your health care provider. He or she may refer you to a Pulmonary Rehabilitation program.

Let's review some of the questions our staff often receives about the program.

Q What is pulmonary rehabilitation?

A Pulmonary rehabilitation is a mixed program of education and exercise to increase awareness about your lungs and your disease. You will learn to exercise with less shortness of breath. The classes are offered in group settings, allowing you to meet others with your condition, which provides an opportunity to give and receive peer support. The skills and knowledge learned in the program will help you feel better and manage your chronic lung disease. You'll become stronger by increasing your level of fitness. Exercising your lungs and your muscles helps you be more active so you can do the things you enjoy with your loved ones.

Q What are symptoms of COPD or other lung diseases?

A COPD develops slowly, and can worsen over time. Symptoms include frequent coughing, wheezing, inability to take deep breaths, difficulty in regular breathing, and trouble performing routine activities (such as walking or getting dressed).

Many people with COPD avoid activities they used to enjoy because they become short of breath so easily. When COPD becomes severe, it can get in the way of doing even the most basic tasks, such as light housekeeping, bathing, or even talking.

Q How does the program work?

A Each pulmonary rehab program is customized to the patient. Your rehabilitation team will take a complete health history, talk with you about your current level of activity, and help you set goals for what is most important to you. You will walk on a treadmill as they monitor your heart rate, blood pressure, and oxygen levels. You may only be able to start out exercising at a slow pace, even for only a minute or two. That's okay. If you need supplemental oxygen, you can use it. Your oxygen level, heart rate, and blood pressure will be monitored constantly by your care team, so you can exercise safely and effectively.

Q Does pulmonary rehab continue at home?

A Pulmonary rehab is so much more than just exercise. It is education and support for people living with lung disease. After you've been going to pulmonary rehab for a while, you may be able to do some of the exercises at home. Always check with your health care provider before starting an exercise routine at home.

Q What happens after I complete the program?

A After you complete your pulmonary rehabilitation program, you will have the skills you need to continue a healthy lifestyle independently. If you need motivation or comradery to help you stay on track with your healthy lifestyle, talk to your pulmonary rehab team. You may be able to extend your rehabilitation program or continue using your organization's facilities.

Remember, you can take control of your lung health with good wellness choices and lifestyle habits.

Jeff Harr is the Cardiac and Pulmonary Rehabilitation Coordinator for Brattleboro Memorial Hospital. Located on the ground floor of the main hospital, the BMH Cardiac and Pulmonary Rehabilitation department serves patients recovering from heart-related events. To contact Jeff or to learn more about pulmonary rehabilitation services, visit or call 802-257-8331.


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