Pulmonary rehabilitation

What is pulmonary rehabilitation?

When you have a lung problem, particularly a long-term one, you can find it difficult to move around or do your normal daily activities without getting breathless. You may also find that you get tired very easily and often feel exhausted. Pulmonary rehabilitation is designed to help you cope with your breathlessness and feel stronger and fitter at the same time.

Getting out of breath can be very frightening, which makes the breathlessness worse. In trying to avoid this, people often reduce the amount of activity they do. However, this does not help, as over time you become unfit, tired and more breathless. Pulmonary rehabilitation can help by breaking that vicious cycle.

A typical pulmonary rehabilitation course includes:

  • a physical exercise programme, carefully designed for each individual;

  • advice on lung health and coping with breathlessness;
a friendly, supportive atmosphere.

With the support of trained health professionals -physiotherapists, nurses, occupational therapists, doctors and many others – a rehabilitation course will teach you how to increase your activity carefully, cope with your breathlessness and manage periods of panic better.

It can help in other ways too; for instance, a dietician could help you learn more about healthy eating to suit your lifestyle. You can also know how and why you are taking your medicines and learn how to look after your chest better.
Pulmonary rehabilitation is about helping you take control of your condition. It is not a cure, but you will feel better and more in control.

Where does it take place?

Courses can take place in hospital chest clinics or community settings, such as community halls or doctor’s surgeries. A course usually lasts between six and 12 weeks. After your course has ended, you may be referred to a local leisure centre to carry on with your programme of exercises. If you do not know where the nearest pulmonary rehabilitation class might be, speak to your health professional or contact the physiotherapy department of your local hospital.

Even if your course does not have this arrangement you should know how to exercise by this time. You will have learnt the best type of exercise for you and how often you should do it. Pulmonary rehabilitation requires your commitment. It does work, but you have your part to play.

How can it help me?

Research tells us that pulmonary rehabilitation leads to improvements in your ability to exercise. One benefit is that you will be able to walk further. As a result you will probably feel less breathless doing day-to-day activities such as walking up stairs, shopping and dressing. You are quite likely to feel less tired too.

However, your lung function (as measured by spirometry) is unlikely to change. This is because improvements result from stronger muscles (and therefore more efficient use of oxygen), stride length, greater co-ordination and improved understanding of breathlessness.

It is very easy to be frightened by breathlessness. After pulmonary rehabilitation, you should be able to handle it better and have more control.

Who should consider pulmonary rehabilitation?

Pulmonary rehabilitation is aimed at patients with breathing difficulty, most commonly those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). However, some studies have shown that people with asthma and other chronic lung diseases may benefit.

Realistically, anyone with a breathing problem that affects their ability to do simple tasks will benefit. How this happens will differ according to individuals, but we know that age and the severity of a condition do not stop people from taking part in rehabilitation.

The people who do best from pulmonary rehabilitation are likely to be those who really want to help themselves, who want to learn and who have a positive attitude. Take a chance, pulmonary rehabilitation will not make you worse. For some people the effort of getting to hospital may be too much; if so, you may be offered gentle activities to do at home.

You will get out of breath when you undertake a programme of rehabilitation, but this is part of the therapy. You will always be monitored and will never be asked to do more than you really think you can.

How do I go about receiving pulmonary rehabilitation?

The first step is to find your nearest programme. If you do not know where your nearest class might be, speak to your health professional or contact the physiotherapy department of your nearest hospital.

The next step is to get referred to the right hospital. At present most referrals are via your local GP and he or she should be able to do this. Bear in mind that some hospitals have waiting lists.

To help yourself while you are waiting you can get in touch with your local hospital and ask to speak to a respiratory nurse or physiotherapist. They should be able to give you some general advice over the telephone.

Above all, try not to reduce the amount of activity you already do. Do it more slowly and take more rests, but don't give up.
If you want further information about pulmonary rehabilitation and how it can help you contact the British Lung Foundation Helpline on 03000 030 555.

More about pulmonary rehabilitation

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