Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is a lung disease that is preventable and treatable. Sixteen million Americans are currently diagnosed with COPD. Twelve million more Americans have “pre-COPD” and will be diagnosed shortly.
Every year, 150,000 Americans die of COPD. It is the third-leading cause of death behind heart disease and cancer. COPD is actually a group of lung diseases that includes:
- chronic bronchitis
- some forms of asthma
COPD makes breathing difficult — extremely difficult. It is irreversible, chronic, progressive and incurable. Many patients become permanently disabled and may have a drastically shortened lifespan.
In COPD, the airways in a patient’s lungs become inflamed. Over time the airways become thick and interfere with the ability to absorb oxygen and also expel unwanted waste gases like carbon dioxide.
Over time, permanent destruction of lung tissue occurs. Lung airflow decreases, and as the disease worsens patients experience extreme shortness of breath and a reduced ability to become and remain active. As one COPD patient said, “Breath is life, and when you can’t breathe, nothing else matters.”
- excess mucous production of the lungs, often causing a clearing of the throat of mucous in the morning, immediately after getting up
- shortness of breath, especially with light to moderate physical activities
- frequent lung infections
- a longstanding cough that produces clear, white, yellow or green mucus
- lightness in the chest
- blue lips and fingernails (a medical condition called cyanosis from lack of oxygen intake)
- decreased energy
- unplanned loss of weight
- ankle, feet and lower leg swelling
The main cause of COPD is cigarette smoking. In fact, 30 percent of smokers will develop COPD. Other causes include environmental exposures involving chemicals, chemical fumes, vapors, dust and air pollution.
A notorious cause of COPD is coal dust experienced by coal miners. COPD in these cases is often called “black lung disease.” Additionally, if one has asthma, smoking dramatically increases the risk of developing COPD.
There is also a rare genetic condition that causes COPD called Alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency. In this case, a person is missing a vital protein that protects both the lungs and liver. Alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency represents only about one percent of all COPD cases, and Alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency is treated differently.
COPD can cause several complications, including recurrent lung infections, lung cancer, heart problems, high blood pressure and depression.
The best way to prevent COPD is not to smoke. If you do smoke, quit smoking.
Additionally, avoid environmental exposures and chemical pollutants that can damage the lungs including coal dust and other chemical fumes. A respiratory protective mask should always be utilized in any work situation with pollutant exposures to a worker’s lungs.
The diagnosis of COPD is made by an experienced physician utilizing multiple informational inputs including medical history, physical examination, imaging studies, blood analysis and special lung function tests.
The treatment of COPD includes smoking cessation; inhibition of environmental or work-related lung pollutants or irritants; medical inhalers that reduce inflammation or increase lung function by relaxing the muscles around the airways, making it easier to breathe and decreasing shortness of breath; oxygen therapy; systemic prescription medications; and, most importantly, a pulmonary rehabilitation program.
Pulmonary rehabilitation is the most essential and useful treatment of COPD that extends life and quality of life. Pulmonary rehabilitation is a specially designed program that employs special exercises, educational programs, and support that is designed to allow participants to function and breathe at the very highest level possible.
Pulmonary rehabilitation allows patients to work with a specialized team of pulmonary health professionals to improve overall health and breathing function by focusing on improving physical health through a complete program of physical exercises. The underlying belief is that by improving physical condition through structured exercise, one will also improve breathing and lung health.
Another goal of pulmonary rehabilitation is to educate patients on best practices to manage their COPD so that they have the lifetime benefit of staying active and healthy. The educational program includes tools to address adverse situations that accompany COPD such as anxiety, panic attacks, and depression.
Other techniques focus on proper breathing exercises, how to prevent COPD exacerbations, how to travel with COPD, the proper use of oxygen and medications, relaxation techniques, and important nutritional considerations. Another benefit of pulmonary rehabilitation is that patients will meet and interact with other people who also have COPD, so networking and support groups can also develop.
The diagnosis of COPD must be made by a physician with a subsequent referral for pulmonary rehabilitation. The team of pulmonary specialists is exceptionally skilled at working with people at all levels of breathing function.
Your general health and pulmonary status will be closely and carefully recorded, evaluated and monitored. With this information, the pulmonary rehabilitation team of specialists will custom design a program for the patient. The program will start very slowly and progress as the participant is able.
It is amazing how well patients do and how well and fast they can progress, even if they start at only doing a minute or two of exercises. Patients are brought along slowly and carefully to ultimately breathe and function at the highest level possible.
It is important to remember that, in many cases, COPD can be prevented and can be treated. If you or a loved one has COPD, talk to your doctor about new treatments and a pulmonary rehabilitation program.
Charles E. Crutchfield III, MD is a board certified dermatologist and Clinical Professor of Dermatology at the University of Minnesota Medical School. He also has a private practice in Eagan, MN. He received his M.D. and Master’s Degree in Molecular Biology and Genomics from the Mayo Clinic. He has been selected as one of the top 10 dermatologists in the United States by Black Enterprise magazine. Dr. Crutchfield was recognized by Minnesota Medicine as one of the 100 Most Influential Healthcare Leaders in Minnesota. He is the team dermatologist for the Minnesota Twins, Vikings, Timberwolves, Wild and Lynx. Dr. Crutchfield is an active member of both the American and National Medical Associations.