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Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is an umbrella term which describes a number of respiratory illnesses with the cumulative effect of permanently restricting an individual’s ease of breathing.

What is COPD?

The presentation of COPD varies between individuals but is generally some combination of symptoms typical of Chronic Bronchitis, Emphysema and Asthma. Unlike these conditions though the symptoms are chronic, persisting over long periods. For a case to be clinical defined as COPD the individual must present with a chronic productive cough for a total of 3 months each year, for at least 2 consecutive years.

Once developed, COPD is a permanent degenerative condition that requires continual management of symptoms through therapy and medication. Although initially hard to detect as the symptoms are common to many respiratory conditions, and may only appear infrequently. COPD can eventually become extremely limiting, requiring the individual to have regular, quick access to oxygen therapy and inhalers. In very advanced cases the laboured work or breathing leaves people constantly tired and difficulty clearing lung secretions results in frequent chest infections.

COPD has a profoundly negative impact quality of life and lifestyle. People with severe COPD can find it difficult to leave the home for long periods, as they need to be permanently supplied enriched oxygen through a nasal cannula or face mask. Although you can live with COPD for decades with good management, it is ultimately a life shortening condition either through respiratory failure or serious infection.

Active cycle of breathing exercises supervised by a specialist physiotherapistAbove: Active cycle of breathing exercises supervised by a specialist physiotherapist

What causes COPD?

There are several minor environmental factors that contribute to the development of COPD, including traffic exhaust fumes, burning solid fuels and general air pollution. These are all relatively trivial factors when compared to the effects of cigarette smoke which accounts for vast majority of risk in developing COPD. More than one in ten of smokers will develop COPD and its severity is directly proportional to the longevity and frequency of their smoking habits.

The relationship between COPD and smoking is in part connected to the loss of functional lung volume that smoking causes. Using a spirometer a person’s functional lung volume is calculated by how much air they can expel from their lungs in the first second of forced expiration (ie. rapidly breathing out). As we get older our efficiency of breathing and functional lung volume declines. For a non-smoker this decline occurs at a rate of approximately 25 millilitres a year. However, smokers developing COPD can experience a general loss of around 60 millilitres a year.

Within the lungs COPD displays traits common to chronic bronchitis and emphysema. The difference with COPD seems to stem from an exaggerated autoimmune response that actually further damages the lung tissues. This means that in addition to the damage and impaired function of the airways caused by the infections. The leukocyte and macrophage white blood cells of the immune system over-react releasing chemicals that damage the cellular structure of the lung tissues. This occurs in a repetitive cycle of infection and immune response causing damage, leaving the lungs vulnerable to infection, which in turn leads to further infection and damage.

How is COPD diagnosed?

A mild case of COPD can be difficult to confirm and will require your doctor to carry out a series of tests to rule out other conditions. Typically a diagnosis of COPD is confirmed using a combination of chest x-rays, blood tests, physical examination and spirometry to test lung function.

For more information on how physiotherapy can help treat COPD, or to book yourself an assessment, please contact us via email at or ring us on 0330 088 7800.

What would a physiotherapy assessment for COPD involve?

At, we want to gain as much information as possible about your condition to ensure we give you the best treatment. In your first appointment with us, our physiotherapists will carry out an assessment which has two parts:


A discussion between you and our physiotherapist to find out what symptoms you are experiencing, and how your condition is affecting you and your lifestyle.


An assessment to discern the presence of any pain, your current breathing pattern, respiration rate, lung volume and a series of special tests to identify the presence of any mucus retention and lung function impairment.

There can be great variation in the symptoms displayed, depending on the progression of the condition and any complicating factors. The assessment process will be important in identifying your current symptoms and needs, so that treatments can be targeted and effective.

What would physiotherapy treatment for COPD involve?

At, Our physiotherapists will ensure you receive specialised treatment for your COPD. Giving up smoking has one of the biggest global health benefits to the improvement of this condition. Depending on the severity and duration of your COPD, your treatment may involve:

  • Secretion clearance:
    • Effective / productive coughing techniques.
    • Postural drainage in sitting and lying.
    • Manual assistance, including percussion, vibrations and shaking.
  • Breathing technique retraining:
    • Controlling respiratory rate
    • Diaphragmatic breathing
    • Controlling / reducing breath volume
    • Relaxation breathing exercises
  • Education and Advice:
    • Illness cause and progression.
    • Effects of environmental and allergen factors, including smoking.
    • Medication management
    • Recognising signs of possible Asthmatic episodes.

At you will experience a personalised treatment session. Each appointment will be aimed at returning to your everyday activities and what you enjoy. It will be important to note that the respiratory physiotherapy we apply should be closely incorporated with other health care professional’s management of the client’s dietary, medical and counselling needs.

How can I arrange a physiotherapy assessment for COPD?

If you have been diagnosed by your doctor as having COPD and are suffering from symptoms affecting your breathing and lung clearance, you would benefit from an assessment with one of our experienced respiratory physiotherapists.

You can contact us directly to arrange an assessment and we can advise you if further treatment is recommended, and give you advice on self-management. To arrange an appointment please email or call 0330 088 7800.


COPD is a long term respiratory condition that limits effective lung function, leaving people breathless and tired even after minor exertion. It predominately affects smokers and has a significantly limiting effect on lifestyle and functional independence with everyday tasks.

We can apply a range of therapy techniques and advice to manage your symptoms and maintain the best possible level of lung function and comfort. We can also advise on activity modification to make daily living easier. Along with advice for you and your family on appropriate self-management techniques to maximise your functional ability between therapy sessions.

For more information on how physiotherapy can help treat COPD, or to book yourself an assessment, please contact us via email at or ring us on 0330 088 7800.

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