Deep breathing is a great exercise to practice along with other breathing techniques like pursed-lips breathing and diaphragmatic breathing (discussed in the next section below). When you feel short of breath, it might help to try deep breathing first, that way you can push any trapped air out of your lungs before moving on to other techniques.
Here is how you perform the deep breathing technique:
- Find a comfortable place to stand or sit and relax your shoulders and chest muscles.
- Push your elbows back slightly to open up your chest cavity and give your lungs more room to expand.
- Take a deep breath in through your nose until your lungs are fully inflated.
- Hold your breath for about five seconds. You can count the seconds off in your head to help you stay focused.
- Exhale slowly through your mouth until you have pushed all of the air out of your lungs.
Diaphragmatic breathing, also known as belly breathing (and sometimes "deep breathing"), is a versatile breathing exercise that can help you breathe more fully, steadily and slowly. It not only prevents breathlessness caused by COPD, but it can help you relax your chest, make it easier to breathe, and allow you to more quickly catch your breath when your symptoms act up.
Diaphragmatic breathing is a classic technique that has long been recommended to patients with COPD. It is a breathing exercise meant to train your body to breathe from your belly (using your diaphragm) instead of using your chest muscles to breathe.
This is beneficial to people with COPD because their lungs and chest muscles already have to work overtime to make up for the fact that they can't absorb oxygen efficiently. This can cause chest soreness and discomfort, making it more difficult and uncomfortable to breathe.
The idea behind diaphragmatic breathing, however, is that it takes the work of breathing off of your chest muscles and puts it on your diaphragm, which is better designed to handle the work. This can help you breathe easier, get more oxygen to your lungs, and prevent the muscles in your chest, shoulders, and back from getting sore and worn out from breathing.
More recently, however, experts have begun questioning the long-term effectiveness of diaphragmatic breathing for people with COPD. While it can help you breathe from your diaphragm in the short term, more recent research suggests that it may not have the expected long term effects.
For example, some studies show that even when you practice diaphragmatic breathing regularly, it usually doesn't stick. It may not be possible to "retrain" your muscles because, as soon as you're not consciously thinking about breathing with your diaphragm, you'll likely go right back to using your chest muscles to breathe.
However, even if you can't retrain your body to use diaphragmatic breathing all the time, it can still have immediate, short-term benefits. Consciously practicing diaphragmatic breathing when you do activities or experience worsened COPD symptoms can provide some relief and reduce the amount of effort it takes to breathe.
For example, if you have severe COPD or experience a flare-up or exacerbation, you might experience worsened chest pain or sore chest muscles from coughing and wheezing. At times like these, you may be able to take some of the strain off of your chest and temporarily relieve some discomfort by practicing diaphragmatic breathing.
HOW TO PRACTICE DIAPHRAGMATIC BREATHING
To practice diaphragmatic breathing, it's best to lie on your back in a quiet, comfortable place. However, you can also practice this technique while sitting or standing if needed.
Here is how you practice diaphragmatic breathing:
- Sit down in a chair or lie down in a comfortable position. Make sure to relax the muscles in your shoulders, neck, and chest.
- Then, place one of your hands on your chest and one on your belly so you can feel them expand as you breathe.
- Take a deep breath in, concentrating on using your belly (diaphragm) to breathe. You should feel your stomach inflate and the hand resting on your belly should rise as you inhale. Focus on keeping your chest still.
- Next, exhale slowly through pursed lips, focusing on using your belly to push the air out while keeping your chest still. You should feel your belly deflate and the hand on your stomach should fall as you breathe out.
The key part of diaphragmatic breathing is keeping your chest muscles relaxed while you breathe with your stomach (or diaphragm). Placing your hands on your stomach and chest helps you focus on this goal and easily identify which muscles you are using to breathe.
For more information and a demonstration of how to practice this technique, check out this video on diaphragmatic breathing from the American Lung Association. This video will help you better understand the benefits of diaphragmatic breathing and how to use the exercise to improve your breathing in everyday life.
THE POWER OF A RELAXED POSTURE
You might have noticed that the first step to practicing any of these breathing techniques is to relax your body. That is because it's common to tense up the muscles in your shoulders, neck, and back when you are struggling to breathe.
This tense posture happens naturally, but it can make it even more difficult to breathe when you feel short of breath. Instead, you should always do your best to keep your body relaxed, even when you feel like you can't breathe.
Keeping the muscles in your neck, chest, and shoulders relaxed can help relieve the airway obstruction and make it easier to catch your breath. It not only relaxes the muscles in your chest cavity, giving your lungs more room to expand but also relaxes the muscles in your throat and airways so air can more easily flow through.
Relaxing your body can also help you feel calmer, as tense muscles send signals to your brain that make you more aroused and anxious. The calmer you are, the easier it is to slow your breathing rate and stay focused on productive breathing exercises that can make the breathlessness pass.
Pulmonary rehabilitation is like a special health class designed to help people with COPD and other respiratory diseases improve their breathing and better manage respiratory symptoms like shortness of breath. Taking a pulmonary rehabilitation class is a fantastic way to learn more about breathing techniques and how to use them during exercise and in your everyday life.
In pulmonary rehab, you will get plenty of opportunities to learn and practice practical breathing strategies and exercises along with other patients who have COPD. You'll also learn how to use your medications to control your symptoms, how to make lung-healthy lifestyle choices, and how to exercise while coordinating your breathing and keeping your symptoms under control.
Pulmonary rehabilitation is often recommended to COPD patients who have trouble exercising, doing daily activities, or managing their symptoms on their own. If you would like to join a pulmonary rehabilitation class you will need to talk to your doctor to get a referral first. PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT!
If you have COPD, there's no excuse for not learning and utilizing these extremely simple, yet surprisingly powerful, techniques for controlling your breathing. They're not only easy to learn, but easy to practice compared to other COPD treatments because they take such a little amount of effort and time out of your day.
After studying this article, you should know how to practice the most effective COPD breathing exercises and understand when each is most helpful to use. If you put in the time to study and practice these techniques, you'll be better able to catch your breath and keep your breathing steady in the midst of difficult COPD symptoms.
As we've mentioned before, practicing breathing techniques regularly, especially when you're not having trouble breathing, is key for reaping maximum benefits from the exercise. After all, if you don't learn to control your breaths when your symptoms are mild, you won't remember how to perform the breathing exercises when you're in the midst of a fit of breathlessness or coughing.
Along with bronchodilators and other rescue medications, breathing exercises should be your first defense against COPD symptoms like breathlessness, coughing, and wheezing that make it difficult to breathe. The better you can breathe, the better your COPD symptoms will be, and the better quality of life you can live with the disease.