Learn good breathing control

People who have COPD have to work harder to breathe and tend to breathe using the muscles in their upper chest, rather than the lower chest muscles. This takes more energy and is tiring. A physiotherapist is the best person to help you learn good breathing control.

The benefits of good breathing control should not be underestimated. Breathing control is useful to manage shortness of breath and for times when you are unwell.

See below for tips on what to do when you are breathless and how to clear mucus from your lungs.

Diaphragmatic breathing

This is also known as ‘tummy’ breathing or breathing control.

· Place one hand on your tummy, over your navel. Your upper chest and shoulders should be relaxed.

· Breathe in through your nose; you should feel your tummy rise as you breathe in.

· Breathe out gently through your nose; your tummy will fall as you breathe out.

Practice tummy breathing first when you are lying down, when you are feeling relaxed. As you get more used to this breathing pattern, you could try it when sitting too.

Pursed Lip Breathing

· Breathe in through your nose slowly for about two seconds.

· Pucker your lips as if you're about to blow out a candle.

· Breathe out slowly through your mouth for four seconds.

What to do when you are breathless

Here are some things you can try to help reduce your breathlessness. Remember to get into a comfortable position when you try these techniques.

  1. Stop what you are doing and relax your body, particularly your shoulder and neck muscles.
  2. Try tummy breathing.
  3. Use pursed lip breathing: breathe in through your nose but breathe out slowly through pursed lips, as if you are blowing out a candle.
  4. Try not to hold your breath during exercise or activity – try to find a rhythm that suits the activity e.g. breathe in time with the steps you take while walking.
  5. Find a comfortable sitting or standing position: the most comfortable position when breathless will vary from one person to the next. The following positions support your breathing muscles and can make it easier to recover from an episode of breathlessness:
  • Supported forward lean sitting: sit with your feet apart and flat on the floor. Lean forward and rest your elbows on your knees or a table.
  • Supported forward lean standing: stand leaning forward and prop your elbows on a support e.g. the kitchen bench, a fence post.
  • Supported standing: stand leaning backwards or sideways against a wall.
  • High side lying: lie on one side, with several pillows to raise your head and shoulders.

Clearing mucus from your lungs

Some people with COPD produce a lot of mucus in their lungs and may find it hard to clear it. This can make breathing even more difficult. If you have a lot of mucus, you can learn ways to clear it (a physiotherapist can teach you this). It may help to use your reliever inhaler to open the tubes before trying to clear mucus. Changes in the colour of the mucus may be a sign you have a chest infection, and you should contact your healthcare practitioner.

Try the following breathing exercises in the morning and evening to remove mucus.

  • Start with some relaxed tummy breathing (diaphragmatic breathing).
  • Then take four or five deep breaths, breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth.
  • Take a break with relaxed breathing.
  • Then repeat the four to five deep breaths.
  • Follow these with one or two “huffs” (cough mucus up if it reaches the throat).
  • A HUFF is a slow breath IN and a forced breath OUT with your mouth shaped like an “O”. Huffing helps move the mucus from your breathing tubes to a place where it can be coughed out.

Useful Resources

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Breathlessness Quick Reference Plan For Copd

Breathlessness Quick Reference

A quick reference guide for managing breathlessness. Available in English and te reo Māori