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COPD: Understanding Pulmonary Rehabilitation

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) touches every part of your life. But pulmonary rehabilitation, or rehab, can help you manage the condition so that it has less of an impact. Rehab is based on a team approach and combines exercise, emotional support, and education. You and your health care providers work together to create a treatment plan just for you. The payoff is increased control of your symptoms and improved function. And that makes it easier to take part in daily activities and enjoy a better quality of life.

Being a team player

You are the most important person on your rehab team. The other people on your team may vary. Typically, they might include a doctor, a nurse, a respiratory therapist, an exercise specialist, a dietitian, and other professionals.


The exercise part of rehab is designed to strengthen your muscles and improve your endurance. Leg exercises, such as walking or riding a bike, help you get around more easily. Arm exercises can help improve your ability to do things, such as carry groceries, clean your house, and take a shower. If you haven’t been active for a while, don’t worry. Your rehab team will design an exercise program geared to your abilities. Your team can also provide guidelines on how often to exercise, for how long, and at what intensity.

For certain people with COPD, ventilatory muscle training (VMT) may also help. Such training specifically targets the muscles used for breathing. VMT isn’t for everyone. But for some, it may reduce breathlessness and make it easier to stay active.

Emotional support

Coping with COPD can be stressful. Not everyone experiences emotional distress, but many do. Common problems include depression, anxiety and lower self-esteem. Some people also feel cut off from others because of their illness. Many rehab programs offer emotional and social support to those who need it. For instance, you might take part in a support group or learn new relaxation skills.

Disease education

The aim of rehab is for you to learn more about your disease and how to manage your symptoms. You may meet with various professionals as needed. For example, a respiratory therapist might show you how to use specific treatments and breathing techniques. An occupational therapist might teach you easier ways to do everyday chores. A dietitian might advise you about healthy eating.

You may also take part in patient education classes. These are common topics:

  • Understanding medications, including their benefits, risks, and proper use

  • Understanding and using oxygen therapy

  • Quitting smoking

  • Learning special breathing techniques, such as pursed-lip breathing

  • Preventing respiratory infections

  • Managing your weight

Getting started in rehab

To determine your needs, a thorough medical evaluation will be performed. Once you’re in rehab, your team will work closely with your health care providers. They’ll also talk with you about preventive strategies, such as getting flu and pneumonia vaccines.

You and your rehab team will set goals that are tailored to your situation and the types of activities that are most important to you. If your top priorities are taking care of your house and visiting your friends, you’ll work toward those objectives.

From time to time, you and your team will review your goals. They can help you improve your progress or overcome barriers and explore new treatment options. Together, you’ll find ways to make the most of your life and stay as independent as possible.