How Is Emphysema Treated?

There is no cure for emphysema. The goal of treatment is to slow the development of disabling symptoms. The most important step to take is to stop smoking.

Treatments for emphysema caused by smoking include medication, breathing retraining, and surgery.

People with inherited emphysema due to alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency can receive alpha 1-proteinase inhibitor (A1PI), which slows lung tissue destruction.

This medication is administered weekly through an intravenous (IV) infusion. In an IV, the medication will drip from a plastic bag into a narrow tube and through a needle inserted in a vein in your arm so that it can reach your bloodstream. It usually takes about 30 minutes for the medication to be administered.

An IV may be uncomfortable when the needle is inserted, but the administration of the medication will not be painful. Side effects of this treatment are rare and, if they do occur, are mild. They include fever, light-headedness, dizziness, and flu-like symptoms.

Need To Know:

The long-term effects of this therapy are not known. A1PI is not recommended for those who develop emphysema as a result of cigarette smoking.

Nice To Know:

Breathing Retraining

Some patients with emphysema develop breathing patterns which may make the feeling of breathlessness worse. While it is natural and effective for a person with normal lungs to breathe rapidly when short of breath, it is counterproductive in emphysema. This is because emphysematous lungs, lacking the normal elasticity which is so important in exhalation, require much longer amounts of time to empty. Rapid breathing does not allow enough time for emphysematous lungs to empty. Breathing retraining consists of a rapid inspiration (a count of one or two) followed by slow exhalation (count of six or more). Learning how to slowly exhale can be made easier by narrowing the lips to a small hole (pursed lip breathing). Following this slow exhalation, the next breath is much larger (since the lungs have emptied much more completely with the slow exhalation) and more oxygen in brought into the lungs.

The Value of Exercise

Physicians now recognize that physical activity, such as a progressive walking program, may be beneficial for people with emphysema. While exercise doesn’t improve lung capacity, it does help the body from becoming weak from reduced use. Also, unused muscles use available oxygen less efficiently. However, the beneficial effects of exercise are quickly lost if a person stops exercising.

Some hospitals offer pulmonary rehabilitation programs that are designed to help improve breathing in people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and other lung problems. These programs combine breathing retraining with carefully monitored exercise.


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