Not Only My Lungs Part II

Last updated: October 2022

Did you know that COPD affects more than your lungs? I was not ready for that tidbit of information after I was diagnosed (I am currently at stage 3). I thought this disease damaged our lungs and that was it. I mean, that's bad enough but to find out it could really affect me from head to toe, well, that was a true eye-opener.

There's a term for this: Comorbidity. A comorbidity is a disease or condition that exists along with the primary disease a patient has, like COPD. Sometimes they are related, or the symptoms are similar, or they share an impact on each other.1

In part one of this three-part series, I discussed several studies about comorbidities and talked about the four most common ones that have been found with all COPD patients. In this article, I'm going to talk about the top five disorders/diseases related to my COPD. The studies I read didn't include some of the physical ones in this article, but I know that other COPDers have them too. In Part III, I'll talk about the final comorbidities, the mental ones. By the way, I have never smoked, but I do have chronic bronchitis, asthma, inflammation, and severe allergies.

1. Rib cramps, costochondritis

Technically, I don't think rib cramps are known officially as a symptom of the disease, but so many patients have complained about them. I think some research should be done. These, for me, are sharp, sudden pains along my rib cage. They can be anywhere on my rib cage and can happen at any time.

I also have a condition called costochondritis which affects my rib cage. Specifically, the cartilage that connects the ribs to the breastbone. The Mayo Clinic says there's no clear cause for costochondritis3. Usually, it's on the left side. It's a sharp pain and it feels worse when I touch it. The first time I had it I went to the doctor immediately because I was concerned it was a heart attack. Which is a good idea, just in case it is. I don't know of a cure, but I feel much better by just taking an Ibuprofen to help with the inflammation. I have a flareup every few months and thankfully it usually goes away on its own after a few weeks.

2. Stomach – bloating

For the past two years I haven't been able to eat as much at one sitting as I used to. That's because when I eat a lot my stomach feels like it's bloated. It's very uncomfortable and I can't breathe as well with this bloating. It happens when I bend over too, whether I've eaten or not. Apparently it's because my diaphragm, which has been pretty much flattened by COPD, pushes down on my stomach. That's why my stomach sticks out so much. Anyway, that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

3. Weight

Which brings me to my next coexisting disease: obesity. Ugh, I hate that word. With emphysema, which is one form of COPD, patients tend to lose weight and have trouble putting the weight back on because it takes so much energy to breathe. But I have the chronic bronchitis and asthma form, and I gained 53 pounds. This is because of constantly taking Prednisone when I'm in an exacerbation or have bronchitis. It is also because I can't exercise as much as I used to. I have recently started walking every day that I can as long as I can. Exercise and activity helps so much with so many aspects of COPD.

4. Muscle weakness

Which leads me to muscle weakness, or muscular atrophy. My muscles get more tired more easily because I get tired more easily and I just can't use them as much. I sleep a lot and when I'm in an exacerbation I can spend weeks in bed, so of course I'm not using my muscles much then either. I think this is probably pretty common for COPDers.

5. Feet/ankles

My feet and ankles swell after I'm done with my walks, or after a particularly busy day for me. Usually the swelling will go down when I put my feet up and rest the rest of the day. Now, this swelling, called edema, can be linked to heart and lung problems like pulmonary hypertension. So if you have any swelling, please go see your doctor about it. There are medications and oxygen therapies that can help.4

So these are the top five comorbidities that I have, having COPD. As you can see, most of them overlap or are related to each other. Believe it or not, I still have a few others. These affect my head and my mental state. I'll finish discussing them in Part III.

You may have some of all of these comorbidities too. I would urge you again to talk to your doctor or specialist if you have – or think you have – any of these. There are treatments that help make life better.

Interested in more articles like this? Check out the rest of the series!

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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