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If you were asked, “What’s the third leading cause of death in America?” would you know that the answer is COPD?According to the American Lung Association, up to 24 million Americans have impaired lung function, a common factor among people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

COPD refers to a group of lung diseases that interfere with normal lung function.

We asked Dr. Albert Curseen, Pulmonologist, to answer some important questions about COPD. Onslow Pulmonology Associates is the newest member of the OMH family of physician practices.

OMH: What kinds of diseases does COPD include?

Dr. Curseen: When you talk about COPD, it includes asthma and chronic bronchitis as well as emphysema. Emphysema is the result of cigarette smoking, but cigarette smoking isn’t the only cause of lung problems. [There’s also] diesel smoke, gas smoke, smog. And people who work in dry cleaners have lung problems because of their exposure to dry cleaning chemicals all day long.

OMH: But the main cause of emphysema is cigarette smoking?

Dr. Curseen: Yes. In a very small percentage of people, there’s an inherited form of the disease called alpha 1-antitrypsin (AAT) deficiency-related pulmonary emphysema, or early onset pulmonary emphysema.

OMH: How does emphysema affect your ability to breathe?

Dr. Curseen: People with emphysema can breathe in real easily, but it takes them forever to get the air out. That’s because the airways that allow you to exhale are weakened by the toxins in the cigarette smoke, so when you try to exhale, the airways partially collapse.

OMH: Why is it so hard for people to quit smoking?

Dr. Curseen: It’s the nicotine. It’s addictive. But there are nicotine patches and gums, and there’s a new medicine, Chantix. It’s not for everybody, but when it works, it really works. Usually the person who does eventually quit has tried several times before they are finally successful. If you keep trying, you will be successful. I tell people, “You weren’t born with a cigarette in your mouth, and if you keep trying to quit, you won’t die with a cigarette in your mouth.”

OMH: Besides quitting smoking, what else can someone do to increase lung function?

Dr. Curseen: As much exercise as you can tolerate. [If you already have breathing problems, see your doctor before starting an exercise program.] Even if you’ve lost some lung capacity, if you make better use of the good lung tissue you do have by increasing its capacity through exercise, you will be in much better shape. (Swimming may be the best sport. At their peak, swimmers’ lungs will use oxygen three times more efficiently than an average person’s will.)

OMH: The American Lung Association says the total surface area of all the airways in an adult’s lungs is roughly equal to one side of a tennis court. Why does the average person only use a small percentage of their lung capacity?

Dr. Curseen: [laughing] Why do we only use only 10 or 15 percent of our brains? Our bodies are gifted with a lot of redundant systems. As you get older, you lose lung function. But if you make your lungs and your heart more efficient, you will get more use from the part of your lungs that is still healthy.

OMH: What do you think of breathing exercises?

Dr. Curseen: Breathing exercises are very good because they help work those sloppy airway muscles, so I recommend them.

 

Here are two trusted breathing exercises you can try:

The “4-7-8” Relaxing Breath

Sit with your back straight while learning the exercise. Place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth, and keep it there through the entire exercise. You will be exhaling through your mouth, around your tongue, with pursed lips.

  • Exhale completely through your mouth, making a “whoosh” sound.
  • Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of 4.
  • Hold your breath for a count of 7.
  • Exhale completely through your mouth, making a “whoosh” sound to a count of 8.

Repeat this sequence 3 more times. Do not do this breathing technique for more than 4 phases at one time. However, you can repeat the technique several times a day.

Simple Deep Breathing

As you slowly inhale, consciously expand your belly with awareness of lowering the diaphragm. Next expand your ribs, allowing the floating ribs to open like wings. Finally, allow the upper chest to expand and lift. Exhale as completely as possible by letting the chest fall, then contracting the ribs and, finally, bring the stomach muscles in and up in order to lift the diaphragm and expel the last bit of air.

 

Written by Jennifer Mackenzie, MFA


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