Surgery Overview

Is surgery an option for treating COPD?

Some patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) have surgery that can help improve their lung function. Surgery is only a choice for some people with COPD – not everyone with COPD will benefit from it and not everyone is a good candidate for surgery.1,2

There are three types of surgery that may be used to treat COPD:

Which COPD patients can have surgery?

Healthcare providers use many different tests to find out if surgery is a possible option for someone with COPD. It will then be up to the patient and their healthcare providers to decide if surgery is the right treatment choice.

A team of healthcare providers will usually be involved in helping the patient consider whether or not to have surgery. The team might include:

  • Primary care physician
  • Pulmonologist (lung and breathing specialist)
  • Thoracic surgeon
  • Anesthesiologist
  • Respiratory therapist

Patients need to meet different conditions to be considered for the three different types of surgery. However, some of the basic conditions are:

  • The patient needs to be strong enough for surgery
  • The patient needs to take part in a pulmonary rehabilitation program
  • The patient cannot be a current smoker1,2

What is a bullectomy?

Bullectomy is a type of surgery that can help improve lung function for some patients with COPD. Emphysema can cause lung damage that destroys the walls of the millions of tiny air sacs in the lungs, which are called alveoli. When the walls of the alveoli are destroyed, they combine to form larger air sacs called bullae.

When these bullae in the lungs become large enough, they can make it difficult to breathe. During a bullectomy, surgeons remove the bullae from sections of the lungs. This can help improve breathing and lung function for some people with COPD. The size and location of the bullae in a patient’s lungs determines whether or not this kind of surgery is an option.1,2

What is lung volume reduction surgery?

Lung volume reduction surgery is a type of surgery for patients with severe COPD. Surgeons reduce the size of a patient’s lungs by taking out the parts that have been the most damaged by the disease – this is usually between 20% and 30% of the lungs.1,3

Removing the most damaged sections of the lungs can help the healthier parts of the lungs to work in a more effective way. This can lead to other positive results, such as:

  • Improved breathing
  • Larger lung capacity
  • Better quality of life3

What is a lung transplant?

Lung transplants are usually only an option for certain people with severe COPD who have lung failure that no other treatment options can help. Lung failure means that the lungs are no longer able to absorb oxygen from the air and transfer it into the bloodstream. COPD can cause lung failure for some people.1

During a lung transplant, one or both of a patient’s lungs are removed and replaced with those of a donor. It is a major surgery that carries many risks, so patients and their healthcare providers must carefully consider whether it is the right option.1

The benefits of a lung transplant for patients with severe COPD include:

  • Improved lung function
  • Increased ability to exercise
  • Better quality of life1
The number of people waiting for lung transplants is much higher than the number of donor organs that are available. This means once a patient decides to go forward with a lung transplant, then they may have to wait a long time until a suitable donor organ becomes available.1

By providing your email address, you are agreeing to our privacy policy. We never sell or share your email address.

Written by: Anna Nicholson and Emily Downward | Last reviewed: August 2020.