Breathing Better Together

COPD support groups offer resources and community

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, is a long-term disease consisting of damage in the tissue of the lungs or in the airways. COPD encompasses two diseases - emphysema and chronic bronchitis - and is almost always the result of years of cigarette smoking.

The disease is a common one. According to the American College of Chest Physicians (ACCP), more than 5 percent of American adults suffer from COPD.

COPD tends to set in between ages 50 and 70. ACCP reports that numbers are highest among women between ages 65 and 74, with a 10.4 percent rate of COPD.

Symptoms include shortness of breath, frequent coughing with mucus, lowered activity levels due to fatigue and breathing problems, more frequent colds and nose and throat infections.

COPD usually progresses overtime. However, there are things patients can learn and steps they can take to cope with their disease in a supportive and progressive environment.

Support groups play a big role among the COPD community, and these organizations can provide a variety of services, skill sets, information and emotional support to patients with COPD.

How Support Groups Might Help

The American Lung Association (ALA) is one wide-reaching organization to offer support groups, as their Better Breathers Clubs have chapters across America.

According to ALA these COPD clubs “offer the opportunity to learn ways to better cope with COPD while getting the support of others who share in your struggles. These support groups give you the tools you need to live the best quality of life you can.”

These support groups, and others like them, cover a variety of topics, ranging from how the disease develops to information about medical tests, breathing techniques and how to discuss your health with a doctor.

“If you feel alone and isolated, these support groups can help. It feels good to talk with others who understand, which has a positive impact on your health,” says the ALA.

The ACCP also stresses the importance of this communal support, especially in terms of quitting smoking, a lifestyle change which is of upmost importance to COPD patients.

“Check your local hospitals and health clinics, libraries, civic groups, and community centers to see if they offer smoking cessation counseling programs,” the ACCP suggests. “Remember, your best chance of success is with the help of others.”

Breathing Techniques

One topic support groups often cover is breathing techniques for COPD patients. Different breathing techniques have different goals and can help patients help themselves when a situation arises.

One example is “pursed lip breathing.” Pursed lip breathing is done by breathing in through the nose and slowly counting to two, then exhaling softly for a count of four while the lips are pursed as when whistling. The ACCP says this method helps patients relax and get more oxygen into the lungs, protecting against shortness of breath.

There are also breathing techniques to help clear mucus out of the airways, according to ACCP.

One such method - the “HUFF cough” - involves combining pursed lips, abdominal breathing techniques and squeezing the muscles in the core of the body while exhaling out forcefully and whispering “huff.”

This “forced expiratory technique” can help patients spit up mucus and clear it out of the lungs, making breathing easier.

These and other breathing techniques are common topics taught by medical professionals in support groups. Visit a healthcare professional for detailed information on how to perform such exercises correctly.

Partnering with a Doctor

Another common support group topic focuses on building a relationship between patient and doctor.

The ACCP stresses to patients, "Find a healthcare provider who you can talk easily with. This will be an important relationship for you, since we know that COPD is a progressive disease (it does not go away)."

The group also stresses that this relationship is a partnership – one requiring effort from both parties.

An early goal of this doctor-patient partnership may be to create an action plan together. The ACCP describes this as "a series of steps and goals that you will plan with your healthcare provider to help you succeed in living well with COPD."

By creating a plan with actionable steps and measurable goals to accomplish, doctors and patients can work together to make life better and healthier while coping with COPD.

A new diagnosis can be complicated and overwhelming, and the better prepared a patient is to ask the right questions and work with a doctor, the better the overall situation may be.

Doctor's Orders

John Oppenheimer, MD, of Pulmonary and Allergy Associates in New Jersey, told dailyRx News that while COPD can cover a wide spectrum of disease, support groups can be quite helpful. 

"I have found that patients can share both their misery as well as successes," said Dr. Oppenheimer. "By that I mean that patients with this illness can have confirmation that it really can reduce quality of life, while at the same time can learn tricks to get more out of what lungs they have."

"This can be in the form of respiratory rehab to something as simple as what malls or shopping centers are easiest to get around," Dr. Oppenheimer told dailyRx News.

Different groups may offer different focuses and benefits. Talk to your doctor about finding a group in your area.

Support groups for a variety of diseases can help patients of all types cope and live a healthier and happier life. Topics that may be discussed in a COPD support group include breathing techniques, kicking the smoking habit, staying active, managing doctor-patient relationships and emotional coping, to name a few.

Dealing with COPD might not always be easy, but with the help of a supportive community, the load can be made a little bit lighter and patients can breathe a little bit easier.

Review Date: 
January 22, 2013