What Happens During Pulmonary Rehabilitation?

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Pulmonary rehabilitation is a comprehensive preventive healthcare program provided by a team of health professionals to help people cope with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) physically, psychologically, and socially. It can also assist people with asthma, pulmonary hypertension, cystic fibrosis, and pulmonary fibrosis.

If you are a candidate for pulmonary rehabilitation, you’ll receive the therapy in an outpatient clinic or possibly in your home. Typically, it takes place in a group setting where you get the emotional support of others who share your challenges. (Note: During the COVID-19 pandemic, most center-based, face-to-face programs have been temporarily suspended, although some now offer a telehealth option.)

Before you begin pulmonary rehabilitation, your health team will perform tests of your lung function and the level of exercise you can tolerate. Blood tests may also be done. Your providers will ask about your medical history, your diet, and what treatments you’re currently receiving.

The program itself typically consists of several parts:

Exercise training. You will be guided through exercises designed to strengthen your breathing, as well as your back, leg, and arm muscles. You might use weights, a stationary bicycle, or a treadmill. Many people need to start slowly and build from there. As you gain stamina, you’ll be able to do everyday activities more easily.

Nutritional counseling. Being overweight or underweight can make COPD worse. In addition, your daily diet choices may affect your breathing. Some people with COPD find it helps to eat fewer carbohydrates and more fat. During pulmonary rehabilitation, you will get advice on what foods may be best for you.

Breathing techniques. You may be taught yoga breathing, pursing your lips when you breathe, and breathing with the aid of computer feedback—all strategies to help control your COPD.

Emotional support. Living with COPD and other chronic lung conditions is difficult, and it is not unusual to experience depression or anxiety. Counseling—either individually or in groups with others in pulmonary rehabilitation— may be helpful.

Education. An important component of pulmonary rehabilitation is simply learning more about the disease and how to cope with it. This may include instruction in different ways to perform daily tasks, such as avoiding lifting and bending, so that you don’t get too winded. You may learn the signs of a flare-up and how to potentially avoid one. If you smoke, you can get help kicking the habit. You may also learn about the importance of vaccinations and the use of oxygen to control your symptoms.