Can Physical Therapy Help With Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)?

Can Physical Therapy Help With Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)? | Capitol Physical Therapy Orthopedics And Pain Management Washington DC

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, is a progressive lung disease that affects your breathing and muscle function.

In its early stages COPD might seem like a persistent cough or cold.

As it progresses, COPD can impact other symptoms and organs, and limit your physical activity and quality of life.

Physical therapy is an effective way to slow the progress of COPD and improve your quality of life.

If you’ve been diagnosed with COPD, we offer physical therapy in DC and the surrounding area to those dealing with COPD.

Whether in person or via telehealth physical therapy, we’ll work to keep you active and healthy.

For now, let’s take a closer look at COPD – what it is, its symptoms and causes, and how a physical therapist can help.

What Is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)?

COPD is a group of diseases that cause damage to your lungs over time.

As COPD progresses, the airways in your lungs lose their shape and elasticity.

Tissue damage and inflammation make it harder for your lungs to move air and supply oxygen to the rest of your body.

Over time, COPD can lead to loss of muscle strength and loss of physical function in the body.

The two most common types of COPD are chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

Chronic Bronchitis

The bronchi are the medium sized airways in your lungs.

Chronic bronchitis means that you have persistent inflammation in your airways.

This inflammation can cause a stubborn cough and increased production of mucus.

A diagnosis of chronic bronchitis means you have these symptoms for at least 3 months of the year for 2 consecutive years.


Emphysema affects the alveoli, the tiny air sacs in your lungs.

The alveoli are the parts of your lungs where oxygen and carbon dioxide from your blood are exchanged.

In emphysema, the alveoli are damaged.

This makes it harder for your body to get the oxygen it needs.

Emphysema results in chronic cough and dyspnea, or shortness of breath.

What Causes COPD?

Age and history of smoking are a common factor with most cases of COPD.

Let’s take a closer look.

Smoking Causes COPD

Tobacco smoke, whether in cigarettes, cigars, pipes, or second hand smoke, can cause COPD.

Smoking for many years, heavy smoking, and smoking if you have asthma all increase your risk of COPD.

Once this damage is done, it can’t be reversed.

However, quitting smoking can at least prevent it from getting any worse.

But what about vaping?

If you already have COPD, vaping can make it worse.

But we don’t yet have enough research to know whether it leads directly to COPD.

However, vaping can lead to another lung illness, called EVALI.

This stands for E-cigarette or Vaping Associated Lung Injury, and it has some similar symptoms to COPD.

So if you’re concerned about keeping your lungs health, it’s probably best to avoid vaping as well as smoking.

Risk Of COPD Increases With Age

There are some genetic conditions that can lead to increased risk of COPD in younger people.

But most cases of COPD are in people over 40.

This is partially because it takes several years for COPD to develop.

The risk factors increase as you get older as well.

As a result, COPD is largely a seniors health issue.

Other Risk Factors For COPD

While smoking and age over 40 years are common factors in many people with COPD, environment and genetics can also play a part.

Regular exposure to chemicals, fumes, dust or other particles, and air pollution can cause COPD.

Living or working in spaces with poor ventilation and working without safety equipment can put you at greater risk for COPD.

Up to 5 percent of people with COPD have a deficiency of the protein alpha 1 antitrypsin.

Alpha 1 antitrypsin deficiency causes the tissues of the lungs to deteriorate, and may also cause damage to the liver.

Damage to the lungs during prenatal and early childhood can also contribute to COPD.

How Do You Know If You Have COPD?

COPD can be mild, moderate, severe, or very severe.

The symptoms you experience can progress, especially if your COPD is left untreated.

Early symptoms of COPD can be fairly mild and can easily be mistaken for a cold.

Early symptoms of COPD include:

  • Feeling out of breath from time to time
  • Mild but persistent cough
  • Frequently clearing your throat, particularly when you wake up
  • Tiring more easily from light exertion

As COPD progresses, the symptoms get harder to ignore:

  • Feeling short of breath after even mild forms of exercise like walking up a flight of stairs
  • Wheezing, or high pitched, noisy breathing, especially when exhaling
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Persistent, recurring cough, wet or dry
  • Needing to clear mucus from your lungs every day
  • Frequent respiratory illness like colds, flus, and other infections
  • Lack of energy

In its later stages, COPD will begin to affect systems and processes in other parts of your body.

More advanced symptoms of COPD include:

  • Fatigue
  • Swelling in the lower extremities, like the feet, ankles, and legs
  • Weight loss

If you have COPD and experience any of the following symptoms, seek emergency medical treatment immediately:

  • Blue or gray tinge to your lips or fingernails
  • Gasping or having trouble catching your breath
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Confusion, dizziness, or faintness
  • Racing heart

How Do You Know If You Have COPD? | Capitol Physical Therapy Orthopedics And Pain Management Washington DC

How Can A Physical Therapist Help With COPD?

Physical therapy for lung rehabilitation can improve your shortness of breath and increase your quality of life.

When you meet with your physical therapist they will do an assessment so they can help you strengthen and adapt safely.

A typical assessment will include:

  • Review of your medical history, tests, and hospitalizations
  • Review of your treatments and medications
  • Physical tests to check your strength, tolerance for exercise, and balance
  • Discussion of your symptoms and what helps or worsens them

Based on your initial assessment, your physical therapist will offer you strategies that can help in the following ways:

1. By Keeping You Active

Strength training and aerobic exercise can improve your tolerance for physical activity and your overall health.

In people with moderate to severe COPD, strength training increases muscle mass and overall strength.

Walking and arm exercises can also help you gain strength and improve your shortness of breath.

Your physical therapist can teach you strengthening exercises using gym equipment or things you have around the home.

Your physical therapist might also introduce you to gentle aerobic exercise using equipment like an exercise bike or an elliptical machine.

2. By Improving Your Balance

Many people with COPD face an increased risk of falls.

The loss of muscular function, weight loss, and dizziness that accompany COPD can lead to problems with balance.

Your physical therapist can provide exercises to improve your balance and help you adapt your movement to avoid dizziness.

If you use supplemental oxygen, your therapist can also help you adapt your movement to avoid equipment related accidents.

RELATED: Vestibular Rehabilitation Physical Therapy

3. By Making Sure You Can Breathe While You Exercise

Shortness of breath can be a real barrier to even basic physical activity for some people with COPD.

The inspiratory muscles, or the muscles you use to breathe in, can be weakened by COPD.

Your physical therapist can help you train these muscles.

This can reduce your shortness of breath and increase your ability to exercise.

Your physical therapist can also teach you pursed lip and diaphragmatic breathing to make your breathing more efficient.

4. By Reducing Your Risk Of COPD

If you are at risk of developing COPD or have mild COPD, physical therapy can help you slow the progression of disease.

Your physical therapist can offer you strategies to continue an exercise program at home or at the gym.

Regular exercise can complement your physical therapy and help you maintain your health once you’ve finished your treatment.

Maintaining your exercise routine after lung rehabilitation helps keep up your quality of life and physical function.

Book Your Appointment With Capitol Physical Therapy Today

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease can have far reaching impacts on your quality of life and everyday activities.

Physical therapy can help you be more active, slow the progress of your disease, and preserve your quality of life.

To breathe easier, book your appointment with Capitol Physical Therapy today.

Capitol Physical Therapy
1331 H St NW #200,
Washington, DC 20005


9560 Pennsylvania Ave. # 202,
Upper Marlboro, MD 20772


Capitol Physical Therapy offers orthopedic and other pain related solutions, with our versitile team of physical therapists in Washington, DC