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In the Spotlight

Help for Lung Disease Sufferers
By Robert Chang, MD

As our population ages, more and more people are diagnosed with the disabling condition known as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, or COPD. The term COPD refers to the lung diseases emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Asthma may also fall into this classification. While diseases such as heart disease and cancer are decreasing, the rate of COPD is actually rising. Because the primary cause of emphysema and chronic bronchitis is cigarette smoking we are now seeing lung disease in the huge population of people who smoked in the 1950s and 60s—even those who quit smoking years ago.

Early symptoms of the disease can be subtle. You may notice that you’re short of breath and aren’t able to keep up a walking pace with the rest of the family without stopping to rest. Household chores may make you feel winded and tired. You may sound “wheezy” on the phone, or have to pause for breath when speaking. Symptoms of more advanced COPD include a more severe shortness of breath; coughing or wheezing; an increase in the amount of sputum (mucus or phlegm) produced (or in its thickness or color); ankle swelling; forgetfulness; confusion; sleepiness or trouble sleeping; and a general feeling of ill health.

Having COPD can make you experience anxiety, depression, and social isolation due to the limitations it places on your lifestyle. What you may not realize is that a medically supervised pulmonary (lung) rehabilitation program can make a dramatic difference in your health and quality of life. The program will help keep you out of the hospital and feeling more energetic and in control of your condition.

Exercising in the safe environment of a pulmonary rehabilitation program provides a sense of security and belonging. In the rehab gym no one looks sideways at you if you need to stop and cough, or if your treadmill is on a very slow speed, or if you need to pull out an inhaler. The sense of community in the group is impressive and many members consider it a delightful side benefit—they take trips together and have a busy social calendar.

It is important that your rehab program is accredited by the American Association of Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Rehabilitation (AACVPR) to ensure that the program meets rigorous standards of care. For example, what the typical person may know about exercising doesn’t apply the same way to someone with COPD, so you need to be carefully supervised. However, at the same time, you do need to exercise! Medicare recently started covering pulmonary rehabilitation services, and statistics show that it will make a very positive difference in your quality of life.

Dr. Chang is the Medical Director of the Pulmonary Rehabilitation Program at Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Center Torrance.