What is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease?

What is COPD? 

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, also referred to as COPD is the collective term for a number of lung diseases that prevent proper breathing due to inflammation of the lungs, which often cause difficulty breathing, coughing and wheezing. The main causes of the disease are smoking or long term exposure to air pollutants without adequate ventilation (this may come from a living environment or an occupational environment). COPD is a progressive condition, which means that there is no cure, however, what we can do is slow down the rate at which it gets worse and treat the symptoms of it through physical activity, medications, and breathing techniques.

There are 4 stages of COPD:

These stages are based on your symptoms, severity of the condition and your spirometry lung test FEV1 results. FEV1 refers to ‘Forced Expiratory Volume’, which is the amount of air you can breathe out of your lungs in the first second of expiration. The severity increases as your FEV1 decreases.

  1. Mild
    You may not notice any symptoms or may have some shortness of breath when you do something tiring like walking up a hill.
    (ie: FEV1 at least 80% of predicted value).
  2. Moderate
    When going for a walk, you may have to stop every few minutes to catch your breath.
    (ie: FEV1 at least 50% to <80% of predicted value).
  3. Severe
    It may be difficult to leave the house or do your daily routine due to shortness of breath.
    (ie: FEV1 at least 30% to <50% of predicted value).
  4. Very severe
    You may have lung or heart failure and could be short of breath when at rest. At this stage the disease greatly impacts your daily functioning.
    (ie: FEV1 at least <30% of predicted value or FEV1 <50% of predicted values plus severe chronic symptoms).

What stage you’re in can indicate the quality of life and what treatment interventions may be necessary. 

How does it affect me?

In COPD, the airways in the lungs are inflamed and damaged. As a result, instead of allowing air to flow freely, they collapse and close up when you exhale. This causes air in the deeper parts of your lungs to get trapped which means you are not getting rid of carbon dioxide as well. This signals to the body to increase the rate and depth of breathing. As more and more air gets trapped, less room is left for fresh air which means you also don’t receive as much oxygen. This causes many issues and can have a huge impact on your life as a result.  

Managing symptoms through Pursed Lip Breathing (PLB):

One inexpensive way we can do this is through something called pursed lip breathing. One way to think of doing this is when you tighten your lips to blow out candles. The breath out should also be longer than the breath in. This technique forces the air to come out more slowly and as a result increases the pressure in the lungs. This increased pressure helps force the weak airways to stay open and also gives the lungs more time to allow carbon dioxide to move up to the mouth to be exhaled. When we can release more carbon dioxide, the shortness of breath decreases which is one of the most prominent symptoms of COPD. There is strong research to show that PLB can decrease dyspnea (shortness of breath) and increase the exercise capacity in those with COPD.

Contact us to learn more about how you can better manage your chronic breathing problem using exercise and self-management strategies.


ALA. (2015, September 25).American Lung Association [Video Reference]. 

Devine, J.F. (2008). Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease: An Overview. American Health & Drug Benefits (7): 32-42

Mayer, A.F., Karloh, M., Santos, K., Pereira de Araujo, C. L., Gulart, A.A. (2018). Effects of acute use of pursed lip breathing during exercise in patients with COPD: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Physiotherapy, 104(1), 9-17.

Yang, Y., Wei, L., Wang, S., Ke, L., Zhao, H., Mao, J. (2019). The effects of pursed lips breathing combined with diaphragmatic breathing on pulmonary function and exercise capacity in patients with COPD: a systematic review and meta-analysis. An International Journal of Physical Therapy.

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