The ability to breathe easily is something that most of us take for granted. If you are living with pulmonary fibrosis (PF), here are some practical ways that can help you breathe more easily and minimize your need for supplemental oxygen:
1. Give up smoking
This is an essential step for anyone living with pulmonary fibrosis. Smoking causes a great deal of damage to your lungs and can make your condition far worse. There are around 5,000 different chemicals found in tobacco, of which tar and nicotine are the most well-known. Science has proven that at least 70 of these chemicals can cause cancer and the others are all toxic. Your lungs must filter these chemicals before they pass into the rest of your body.
Smoking is one of the risk factors for developing pulmonary fibrosis. A much higher percentage of smokers develop this condition than people who have never smoked.
2. Reduce indoor air pollution
It is a well-known fact that air pollution is not good for our lungs. There is very little we can do to change the quality of the air outside our homes. However, the same is not true of the air that we have inside our homes. We spend a lot of time indoors, so it is important to think about the air that surrounds us.
There are things that we can do to improve the quality of the air that we breathe while we are inside our homes.
What causes indoor air pollution?
Many different things can cause indoor air pollution:
- The type of heating system you have
- The type of stove you use for your meals
- A damp or moldy home
- The building materials in the house
- The level of ventilation in the house
These factors can mean there is an increased level of gas, such as carbon monoxide or sulfur dioxide, in the air. There could also be particulate matter, which are tiny particles of dust and dirt inside your house that can damage your lungs if breathed in.
When using alternative heating sources such as coal, wood pellets or a wood stove, some smoke enters the air during use. The particulates in the smoke can fly into the air and into your lungs which can cause issues especially for those that already struggle to breathe on their own. Air purification and furnace filtration will reduce these lung-damaging particles.
When it comes to cooking with a stove, electric is easier on the air and lungs. Make sure to keep your cooktop and oven clean to avoid burning any spilled food. While gas stoves are popular, they release pollutants during the cooking process that can be toxic when inhaled.
Most of us are familiar with the fact that asbestos is a dangerous building material, the list does not stop there. Do some research and ensure that your home’s biggest polluter isn’t painted on the walls. Organizations like HomeFree have taken on the mission of reducing toxic building materials and creating healthier homes.
Since you have a lung condition, it is likely that you spend more time indoors than the average person. Therefore, this compounds the need to ensure your indoor air pollution level is minimized.
How can I improve the quality of the air in my home?
There are some simple things you can do to help air quality:
- Improve the ventilation. Try to open a window for at least 10 minutes every day. This is especially important if you are cooking or running hot water.
- Try to minimize your time in the house if you are having building work or painting done.
- Prevent condensation. This goes hand-in-hand with ventilation. Wipe away mold, use a range hood when you are cooking and ensure you repair any leaks in the roof or pipes as soon as you can, to prevent water ingress.
- Keep your thermostat set at a comfortable temperature, such as 68° F. If the temperature is too hot, the increased humidity may encourage mold growth.
- House plants are an aesthetically pleasing way to eliminate specific pollutants. Just make sure they aren’t poisonous to little ones or four-legged friends.
3. Learn to control your breathing
This is the most important thing you can learn to do to help yourself. You are the one who is in full control of your rate and depth of breath, so you should aim to breathe softly and smoothly while exerting the least amount of effort possible.
To breathe in this manner, you need to learn how to use your diaphragm correctly. This is the type of breathing that students use during yoga, qi gong and tai chi. Health professionals also teach patients suffering from anxiety to breathe like this to help overcome it.
There is a range of techniques that you can employ to achieve slow and effortless breathing. You may need to practice getting used to how they feel. It is best to do this while you are relaxed and seated, when your breathing is normal and without exerting yourself too much.
Once you have practiced breathing while under little or no pressure, you should then be able to use breathing control when you are having more difficulty breathing, such as while undertaking any form of activity.
How to practice breathing control
For this method, you need to consider how your diaphragm functions. It is the sheet of muscle under the lungs at the lower end of the ribcage. When you take a breath inwards, the diaphragm tightens, which makes the lungs expand as they are pulled downward.
- It is best to start somewhere quiet and comfortable, such as in an armchair. Make sure that you are relaxed throughout your shoulders and body and place your arms on the chair arms.
- Begin by clearing your mind and taking some slow and steady breaths. Close your eyes and try not to think about anything else other than the speed and depth of your breathing.
- Place one of your hands on your chest and the other on your stomach.
- You should keep your mouth closed while you breathe in through the nose. The more relaxed you are, the more the breath reaches into the lungs. This means that the hand you have on your stomach should rise, while the hand on your chest should not move very much at all.
- As you breathe out through the mouth, you should feel the hand on your stomach drop softly. Try to let your breath out by pursing your lips and thinking about the rate that the air leaves your body. As you exhale, think about the tension in your body leaving with your breath.
- Concentrate on keeping your breathing even and slow. Keep your body relaxed. With every breath, try to become more and more relaxed, and make your breathing slower and slower.
- Practice this exercise frequently, even when you are already breathing without problems, but especially when you find that you are becoming breathless. The important thing is to become conscious of your speed and depth of breathing.
4. Use breathing techniques
Some breathing exercises can help you to preserve your breath while you are undertaking activities that exert you. These are some of the most useful:
- Pursed-lip breathing
This technique allows you to expend less energy to breathe and slows down your rate of breathing.
As with the breathing control, it is important to begin with a relaxed and comfortable position. Let the tension leave your body and concentrate on your neck and shoulders being loose and in an easy position. It is best to sit in an armchair or other comfortable chair with your feet flat on the ground.
Inhale through your nose as slowly as you can and count to two. Think about your stomach enlarging as you take this inward breath.
Purse your lips as you would do to blow a whistle and then exhale slowly and count to four or more if you can. Do not try to empty your lungs of air.
- Blow as you go
This is a technique that can help you to manage your breathing while you are exerting yourself. You can use it on its own or combine it with pursed lips breathing.
This technique is meant to support your movements, as it is completed in conjunction with physical effort. For example, you might use this technique when climbing a staircase. Before you begin to climb a step, breathe in. As you perform the action of stepping up, breathe out.
When you take in air, your body then has more oxygen that it needs to fuel the movement. This is a common practice in exercises like lifting or yoga.
- Paced breathing
This technique is a great tool that you can use when you are doing an activity such as climbing stairs or going for a walk. You need to regulate your breathing so that it balances with your steps. You can also use this with the other two breathing techniques to help you even further.
You need to count your steps as you are walking. Breathe in slowly for one step, and then as you take a further one or two steps, breathe out.
If you prefer, you can take more steps as you either exhale or inhale. Find the pattern that works best for you. You might need more steps per breath for certain activities and less for others.
5. Pulmonary rehabilitation
Also shortened to PR, pulmonary rehabilitation is a holistic approach to lung health for people living with a long-term lung condition. It is a combination of both physical therapy and education. Medical professionals tailor the course of treatment to suit you and your condition.
Many patients report this therapy has been the most useful and valuable to them in learning to cope with their lung conditions. This is because it gives practical help and teaches physical exercises that strengthen breathing ability. It also educates the course participants on how to live their lives as well as they can, with their conditions. It helps the participants manage their condition and any symptoms they might have, such as being short of breath.
PR lasts for around two months, with two classes each week. Your local health clinic or hospital is the most likely place to go, to undergo this treatment. Depending on where you live, there are usually up to 10 participants in a group. There is usually also a team of medical professionals consisting of physiotherapists, doctors, nurses and occupational therapists who run the treatment course. Some courses also have therapists who can help with the challenges and anxieties that PF can bring.
Attendees of PR programs learn how far they can push their bodies when exercising, how far is safe and how far can cause overexertion. The education portion of the course helps people to feel more confident about their condition.
Living with PF can be difficult, and patients attending PR courses have found that it is also very helpful to meet and talk with others who are in a similar situation to build a network of friends. The treatment is enjoyable and worth the effort even if sometimes the program leader asks you to stretch yourself.
The benefits of PR
- Increases your level of fitness
- Allows you to do more day-to-day activities before you feel out of breath
- Reduces the likelihood of hospital visits
- Gives you more confidence in your abilities
- Teaches you coping mechanisms
- Boosts your mental health
- Makes you feel better about yourself
- Helps you meet new people and build a support circle
What will my PR treatment be like?
Not every PR treatment program is the same, but they all have certain factors in common.
The first thing that happens during any program is an assessment. This is very important so that the program leaders can find out exactly where you are with your condition, your mental state and your limitations. It helps them determine what you are having difficulties with and how they can help you specifically.
You might have to complete a questionnaire and participate in some exercises. The team wants you to benefit as much as possible from the treatment, so this assessment helps them do that.
PR programs typically consist of physical exercises and education. You may spend around half the time allotted to completing the program on each of these two aspects.
- Physical exercise
This is the foundation of PR programs. Because of the nature of PF, the exercise undertaken cannot improve your level of lung function. It can, however, help your body to make adaptations that improve your fitness and physical condition.
There are three types of exercises that your physiotherapist might use:
- Aerobic: This type of exercise helps you to use oxygen more efficiently. Your heart rate and blood pressure decrease, the more you engage in this type of exercise.
- Resistance: This exercise helps to strengthen all the muscles in your respiratory system.
- Flexibility: Stretches and poses from yoga and Pilates boost your breathing coordination.
The physiotherapist works with you to increase the intensity of your exercises progressively within your safe limits. This may trigger shortness of breath, but your therapist will be there to observe your condition closely. Your therapist may also teach you breathing techniques to help you get through the exercise with minimal discomfort.
Knowledge is power and educating yourself on your condition helps you live the best life that you can. PR programs typically cover such topics as:
- How to eat healthily
- What you should do if you become ill
- Why you need to exercise and what type of exercise is best
- How to overcome anxiety
- How to use and manage your medications
- How to access support groups and exercise groups
Living with pulmonary fibrosis is a challenge, but learning how to manage your condition is the easiest way you can help yourself.