What Are Some Breathing Strategies for COPD?

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last updated: November 2021

Many people do not have to think about how they breathe. However, people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can often have trouble breathing. But there are strategies that can help make breathing easier.1

How do breathing strategies help?

COPD causes obstructive airflow from the lungs that gets worse over time. In COPD, the lining of the bronchial tubes, which carry air from the air sacs (alveoli) of the lungs, becomes inflamed and narrowed. Additionally, the lungs create more mucus, which can further block the airways.2

Also, the elastic walls of the air sacs are damaged and destroyed in COPD. This causes them to collapse when exhaling. This leads to trapped airflow within the lungs, which worsens breathing.2

Breathing strategies are designed to help people with COPD breathe efficiently and effectively. They can help clear out the stale air in the lungs and fully engage your breathing muscles. Breathing strategies may include pursed-lip breathing or abdominal breathing.1,3

Pursed-lip breathing

Pursed-lip breathing is used in those with COPD to help in several ways. First, it can help release trapped air in lungs by keeping the airways open longer during breathing. Additionally, pursed-lip breathing can help lower the number of breaths you take by extending the exhalation phase of breathing. Breathing slower can help you improve your breathing pattern, easing shortness of breath and anxiety.1

Pursed-lip breathing can be used during or after exercising, or during any activity that makes you feel out of breath.1

To do pursed-lip breathing:1,3

  • Close your mouth and breathe in slowly through your nose for 2 seconds
  • Purse your lips like you are going to blow out candles on a cake
  • Breathe out slowly, aiming to breathe out 2 to 3 times longer than you inhale

Abdominal breathing

Abdominal breathing is sometimes called belly breathing or diaphragmatic breathing. It can be more difficult to learn than pursed-lip breathing, and it can be helpful to have a professional teach you the method.1

The goal of abdominal breathing is to practice engaging your diaphragm while breathing. This helps you take deeper breaths and fully empty your lungs when you exhale. The diaphragm is the main muscle in our chest that controls breathing. People with COPD sometimes rely on their neck or back muscles to breathe, but these do not work as effectively.1

When practicing abdominal breathing, the goal is to feel your stomach move as you breathe. The basic steps for abdominal breathing are:1,3

  • Lay on your back in a comfortable setting.
  • Relax your muscles, especially in your neck and shoulders.
  • Place 1 hand on your chest and 1 on your stomach.
  • Slowly breathe in through your nose.
  • Focus on using your stomach to breathe. You should feel the hand there rise as you inhale.
  • Slowly breathe out through your mouth. You should feel the hand on your stomach move in. The hand on your chest should not move at any point.
  • As you get better at abdominal breathing, you can practice doing it standing up. Eventually, you should be able to use abdominal breathing even while doing activities.

Other strategies for people with COPD

There are other strategies people with COPD can use to make daily tasks and breathing easier. Strategies like this are typically covered in pulmonary rehabilitation programs. These are special programs for people with COPD that teach exercises and coping mechanisms for managing COPD.1

Other strategies for people with COPD include:1,4,5

  • Huff coughing
  • Conserving energy
  • Breathing while bending forward

The huff cough is a method of coughing that removes mucus from the airways. To perform the huff cough:5

  • Sit in a comfortable position.
  • Take a deep breath and hold it for 3 seconds.
  • Breathe out as quickly as you can. Hold your mouth as you would if you were fogging a mirror and say "huff" as you breathe out.
  • Repeat 4 to 5 times.

People with COPD can sometimes get tired while performing normal tasks. Conserving energy can help with this. Tips for conserving energy include:1

  • Move slowly
  • Take seated breaks often
  • Practice pursed-lip breathing during breaks

Another breathing strategy for people with COPD can be breathing while bending forward. This is a very straightforward strategy. All you must do is bend forward slightly at the waist while breathing. This helps the diaphragm move easier and can make breathing easier as well.4

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