Breathing Strategies

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What are breathing strategies?

For people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), taking part in a pulmonary rehabilitation program is an important part of the treatment plan for managing the disease. During the program, patients learn about various strategies for making breathing easier.

These breathing strategies may include:

  • Pursed-lip breathing
  • Abdominal breathing
  • Techniques for clearing mucus from the lungs
  • Ways to conserve energy

What is pursed-lip breathing?1,2,3

Pursed-lip breathing is a technique that can be very helpful for COPD patients. It can help during exercise and during day-to-day activities. It has several benefits:

  • Helping the patient to relax
  • Allowing more oxygen to be absorbed by the lungs
  • Reducing breathlessness

Patients can practice pursed-lip breathing using the following steps:

  • Relax your neck and shoulder muscles
  • Close your mouth and breathe in slowly through your nose for 2 full seconds
  • “Purse” your lips by tightening them like you’re going to blow out candles on a cake
  • Breathe out in a slow and gentle way through the lips for 4 seconds
  • If 4 seconds is too long, try to breathe out for at least as long as you breathed in

What is abdominal breathing?1,3

Abdominal breathing is also called “diaphragmatic” breathing. It is another useful way to make breathing easier for COPD patients. Abdominal breathing can help keep air from being trapped in the lungs, which happens due to damage caused by emphysema.

The following steps can be used to practice abdominal breathing:

  • Lie down on your back with your knees bent, or sit in a comfortable position with your neck and shoulders relaxed
  • Put one hand on your chest, and the other hand on your stomach under your ribs
  • Breathe in slowly through your nose for 2 or 3 seconds
  • Your stomach and lower part of the ribs should expand, but your upper chest should stay still
  • Tighten your stomach muscles and breathe out through pursed lips for at least 4 seconds
  • While breathing out, your chest should remain still

What techniques can help clear mucus from the lungs?1

COPD patients can use special techniques to help clear more mucus from their lungs. There are handheld devices that can help with this, which patients may learn about from their healthcare provider or during their pulmonary rehabilitation program.

There is also a technique called the “HUFF Cough,” which can be used to force mucus out of the lungs. The following steps can be used to practice this technique:

  • Sit in a comfortable position
  • Take 3-5 slow and deep breaths using pursed-lip breathing and abdominal breathing
  • Breathe in normally
  • Tighten your chest and stomach muscles
  • Open your mouth and force out a strong breath while whispering the sound “HUFF”
  • Repeat the HUFF breath one more time
  • Take 3-5 slow and deep breaths using pursed-lip breathing and abdominal breathing
  • Repeat this cycle 2-4 more times, until enough mucus is cleared

How can COPD patients conserve energy?1

There are many ways that COPD patients can save energy throughout the day. Using these techniques can allow them to be more active without feeling breathless. Some tips include:

  • Move slowly
  • Sit down for as many activities as possible – dressing, shaving, showering, cooking, etc.
  • Rest after mealtimes
  • When possible, use helping devices such as rolling carts and long-handed reaching tools
view references
  1. American College of Chest Physicians. “Living Well with COPD: Your Patient Guide.” 2014. Available at: www.chestnet.org/patient-education [Accessed 7 March 2015.]
  2. National Jewish Health. “Breathing retraining.” Available at: http://www.nationaljewish.org/healthinfo/conditions/copd-chronic-obstructive-pulmonary-disease/lifestyle-management/breathing-retraining [Accessed 7 March 2015.]
  3. COPD Foundation. “Breathing techniques.” Available at: http://www.copdfoundation.org/What-is-COPD/Living-with-COPD/Breathing-Techniques.aspx [Accessed 7 March 2015.]
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