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This article appeared in The Home News Tribune and Rahway Record.
September 2006

Pulmonary Rehabilitation Helps Patients Breathe Easier

By Paul Schroeder, M.Ed

He walked as if in slow motion, gasping for breath with each step. A lifelong smoker, the man had been diagnosed with emphysema five years ago. While he had quit smoking, he gained about 40 pounds since his diagnosis. He needed oxygen daily and rarely left home, fearing he would not be able to breathe.

I explained to him that pulmonary rehabilitation was about increasing lung capacity and function through a program of exercise, stretching, muscle strengthening and diet. He was more than a little skeptical. “Get on a treadmill? You get on a treadmill,” he said. “I can hardly breathe.”

After 12 weeks in the program, this man who could not even clock two minutes on a treadmill can now do more than 20 minutes at moderate speed. He has lost more than ten pounds. He’s stronger, able to perform a day’s worth of household chores. While he uses oxygen, he doesn’t require it daily. And best of all, he is fishing again, something he had thought he would never do after he was diagnosed.

Pulmonary Rehabilitation is an 8 to 12 week program designed for people with pulmonary disease such as emphysema, asthma and chronic bronchitis whose severe shortness of breath compromises their lives. In addition to those lung problems, pulmonary rehab can also help people with silicosis, cystic fibrosis, lung cancer, pulmonary fibrosis and other interstitial lung diseases.

Pulmonary rehabilitation doesn’t reverse or change the lung disease in any way. It has not been shown to increase a patient’s longevity. What it does do is improve lung function and maximize exercise capacity, enabling patients to live their lives and do the things they enjoy.

People with lung disease often limit their physical activities because they are fearful of becoming short of breath. Their inactivity leads to a decline in muscle strength, so they grow weaker and in turn, more fearful.

Using stationary bikes, treadmills, and hand held weights and working with a respiratory therapist and other health professionals, patients are monitored and evaluated to ensure safety and progress. The program, which runs three times a week for 90 minutes, is tailored to the needs and abilities of each patient, considering condition, age and lifestyle.

Telling a patient who can barely breathe he or she will be exercising sounds strange, but it works. A comprehensive pulmonary rehabilitation program has been shown to increase patients’ exercise capacity. What’s more, pulmonary rehab programs have been shown to reduce anxiety and depression, as well as hospitalizations and emergency room visits.

Pulmonary rehab also reduces the fear and the panic associated with lung disease. The inability to breathe is terrifying. Many people with lung diseases live in fear of gasping for breath so they drastically curtail their activities.

When patients see themselves making progress on the treadmill or the stationary bike, when they are able to do their laundry, food shop or walk down the street that fear disappears. In short, they are able to live their lives.

Paul Schroeder, M.Ed, is a certified respiratory therapist and a certified personal fitness trainer with the Pulmonary Rehabilitation Program at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital at Rahway. For more information call 732-499-6190.

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