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doctor pointing at lungs

Let’s Talk Lungs

The lungs are huge. Shaped like an upside-down butterfly, the top of each lung extends into the lowest part of the neck, just above the first rib. The bottom of each lung extends to the diaphragm. The left lung is a bit smaller than the one on the right to allow space for the heart. Indeed the heart and the lungs are connected in many ways.

It is often easier for a doctor to listen to what is going on in the lungs with a stethoscope from your back. The reason your doctor may ask to listen from there as he can much easier hear any crackles that might indicate infection, or some other problem. Because many of us with COPD have inflated lungs at the severe stage and above, we can become very short of breath and distressed when bending down because we are crushing the bottom of our lungs that are in the diaphragm area.

Lungs can be damaged in many ways.

There is air pollution, coal dust from mining, asbestos, childhood and other illness such as pneumonia, and smoking to name a few. It is considered you will probably have smoked for at least 15 years. That is 20 a day for 15 years before you will develop COPD because of smoking. If you have smoked for less than 15 years, and no cause is obvious as to why you have COPD, you might be tested for alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency (AATD) This, if positive, could show your COPD as being caused by not having enough alpha-1 antitrypsin protein or having defective proteins, and is inherited. AATD is thought to effect 1 in 3,500 people and is more common in Europeans.

Lungs lose capacity with age. One of the reasons why when we have lung function tests and are shown our results apart for FEV1 and other markers you will see lung age. If you have COPD and smoke, remember: your rate of progression with COPD will be faster than otherwise. As long as you exercise or as I say, move that body, and do not smoke, in many cases your lungs will only deteriorate at the same rate as other people.

In other words, you will almost halt the decline.

Most with COPD will have more than one element. Myself I have chronic bronchitis and emphysema.
Chronic means constantly recurring, persistent and long-term. Lung damage causes a reduction in lung capacity – making it hard to do what we are used to doing, and in some cases needing to use supplementary oxygen. We must do all we can to try to avoid an exacerbation. A lung infection or pneumonia that can damage already compromised lungs by avoiding those that are themselves ill, and ensuring we have that all important once yearly flu vaccination.

It is often hard for those that do not have COPD to understand what is happening to us with COPD, and how we feel. Others might wonder, what does COPD feel like? Family or a partner might seem cruel and uncaring at times, saying it is all in our mind. To hurry up. I have used straws to show others how we feel, but now have been told how our respiratory nurses here in South Wales are taught in training what it feels like to have COPD.

In most cases our problem is not because we cannot get enough air into our lungs.

Inhaling is not the problem.

Our lungs have lost the ability to spring back and allow us to expel air easily.

Exhaling is our problem.

We have to concentrate on exhaling if we want to remove as much stale air as possible. Pursed lips breathing is one example. We may only expel half the available air out of our damaged and compromised lungs, leaving half the stale oxygen free air stuck inside. For that reason when we inhale we can only inhale a limited amount as our lungs can only expand so far – and are already half inflated before we start to inhale. This is one reason our lungs need a good workout every day. We have to move our bodies so we become out of breath.

So your family or friends want to know what it feels like for you with COPD.

Ask your friend or family to take a couple of normal breaths and relax. Feels great, don’t it? Now ask when they exhale to only breathe out half the air in their lungs. Then to breathe in as normal. Ask them to repeat this cycle while walking around the room, or doing some other task. Because they are only exhaling half their lung volume each time, they are mimicking COPD – and themselves leaving stale air behind.

Ask a friend or family member to try it.

I look forward to your comments on what your friend or family have said on doing this.

I am very positive, but sadly because we have COPD we are prone to other illness that sometimes go hand in glove with COPD, and we should be aware of these. Heart arrhythmias like atrial fibrillation (AF) is a condition that many of us with COPD also have. I have had AF for many years. It can be treated although you might need to take a blood thinner also; talk to your doctor.

Pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH) is high blood pressure in the pulmonary arteries that flow from your heart and through your lungs. Look out for swelling (edema) in your ankles or legs that could indicate PAH and get it looked at if you notice this. In many cases, it could be your medication causing edema. My medication causes some edema at times.

If you have chest pains seek urgent advice.

Heart failure is usually caused by lack of oxygen for prolonged periods but can also be a result of PAH. If you are aware your blood oxygen levels are constantly low, you will need to ask your specialist if you need oxygen therapy, or if already using oxygen see if your flow needs to be increased.

High blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes are also very common for us guys. Both are easily treatable, and pose little threat if you follow what your doctor tells you. I have both with blood pressure under control and diabetes controlled by eating much less sugar.

Be aware but remember: despite everything, we can and do still lead a good life.

There are many in a much worse place than us and there is much worse illness than COPD that others have.

I look forward to any comments you might have on this post. Till I write again, breathe easy and enjoy each day.

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.


  • Bonnie
    2 years ago

    Hi, Derek,
    Thanks for your response. I’m a bit late in seeing it. I’ve just hired a physical therapist and she’s working with me on breathing exercises; I’ve already shown improvement. When I went to pulmonary rehab (twice at different places), they gave little attention to breathing. Or maybe I just wasn’t listening. Whatever the reason, I’m doing it right now, and I’m going to get in better shape and develop a habit for the rest of my life of doing breathing exercises and other exercises as well. Thanks, again.

  • buckybuck
    2 years ago

    Derek, thanks so much for this article! It is very helpful. I am glad you mentioned that by exercising you were referring to breathing exercises. I try to do the one you mentioned daily along with moving my body often. I also use this one: take two breaths in and hold. Then exhale four times. Repeat this twice to begin with and try to increase a time or two as you go along. I find each time I do it, it becomes more comfortable.
    I’d love to hear about some other breathing exercises because, to be truthful, they are a bit boring, aren’t they?

  • Derek Cummings author
    2 years ago

    Many thanks for your comment buckybuck. You are doing well with the breathing exercises. Although sadly they can be boring the Advantages of doing them is enormous, and often helps to expel mucus. Of course it might help to exercise with breathing listening to some music you enjoy. Something I often do to smooth the boring bits.

  • Bonnie
    2 years ago

    Can you say a little more about the following, which you wrote in the article?

    “For that reason when we inhale we can only inhale a limited amount as our lungs can only expand so far – and are already half inflated before we start to inhale. This is one reason our lungs need a good workout every day. We have to move our bodies so we become out of breath.”

    It’s the last two sentences that I’d like to know more about. I’m on oxygen and am trying to exercise but find it difficult to motivate myself.

    Thank you.

  • Derek Cummings author
    2 years ago

    Hi Bonnie, When we were younger, before we had copd, our lungs did a great job of breathing. We did not need to think about it did we. We would breathe in. Then breathe out without thinking about it. Think of our lungs a bit like balloons in them days. The balloon is like a spring Let go of the end and the air escapes until the balloon is flat. That is, I am making this simple, as our lungs were.

    But now we have copd our lungs have lost that ability to ‘spring back’. This leaves stale old air trapped that has not escaped, and therefore our lungs partly expanded, Because they already have air in them, say half a lung full although the amount differs with each of us. This means in the case of half a lung already expanded. We can only inhale half a lungs worth of the total capacity. Resulting in only managing to draw in half the need, and to expel less stale air and co2 too. To counter that we need to concentrate with breathing exercises to expel more of the air in our lungs. Breathe in to the count of three. And exhale to the count of 6 for instance. If you look up breathing exercises I am sure you will find that helpful.

    If you do breathing exercises and look at your oximeter you should notice a difference in your readings. Thank you for reading my article Bonnie. Like you I use oxygen so do appreciate how hard the struggle can be at times. Breathe easy.

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