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What is it?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is the name for a group of lung conditions that cause breathing difficulties.

It includes:

  • emphysema – damage to the air sacs in the lungs
  • chronic bronchitis – long-term inflammation of the airways.

COPD is a common condition that mainly affects middle-aged or older adults who smoke, although you can be a non-smoker and develop COPD.

COPD happens when the lungs become inflamed, damaged and narrowed. The main cause is smoking, although the condition can sometimes affect people who have never smoked.

The likelihood of developing COPD increases the more you smoke and the longer you’ve smoked.

Some cases of COPD are caused by long-term exposure to harmful fumes or dust. Others are the result of a rare genetic problem which means the lungs are more vulnerable to damage.

The breathing problems tend to get gradually worse over time and can limit your normal activities, although education and treatment can help keep the condition under control.


The main symptoms of COPD are:

  • Increasing breathlessness, particularly when you’re active
  • A persistent chesty cough with phlegm
  • Frequent chest infections
  • Persistent wheezing.

Without treatment, the symptoms usually get progressively worse. There may also be periods when they get suddenly worse, known as a flare-up or exacerbation.


COPD can be diagnosed using a detailed history imaging of your lungs and lung function testing.


The damage to the lungs caused by COPD is permanent, but treatment can help slow down the progression of the condition.

Treatments include:

  • Stopping smoking – if you have COPD and you smoke, this is the most important thing you can do
  • Inhalers and medicines – to help make breathing easier
  • Surgery or a lung transplant – although this is only an option for a very small number of people.

The physiotherapy treatment techniques can include;

  • Education and advice about the condition
  • Breathing exercises to clear mucous
  • Postural drainage.
  • Adjuncts such as flutter / acapella / PEP
  • Manual therapy
  • Exercise advice
  • Breathless management
  • Exercise regime such as pulmonary rehabilitation.
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