Tai chi for COPD

What is COPD?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is a term which refers to a number of conditions relating to the lungs. It includes illnesses such as emphysema, chronic bronchitis, severe cases of asthma which are considered to be non-reversible, and some forms of bronchiectasis, a disease where the bronchi in the lungs become widened abnormally, causing an uncomfortable build-up of mucus.

What are the risk factors for getting COPD?

There are a number of contributing factors to those people who contract COPD. Unsurprisingly, one of the major ones is exposure to cigarette smoke. The longer period of time a patient smokes for, the more likely they are to suffer from COPD. This includes those who smoke pipes, marijuana and those exposed to second hand smoke due to living with smokers. The risk is even greater for those who suffer from asthma and also are smokers.

Other risk factors include working for prolonged periods of time with dust, chemical fumes or vapours, and age. The risk of contracting COPD is significantly higher the older a patient becomes, and it is unusual for someone to suffer with COPD under the age of 35. There are also certain genetic factors which can cause a person to have a higher likelihood of suffering from COPD.

Added problems linked to COPD

Once a patient has COPD, they are more at risk of other illnesses. The most obvious condition is any type of respiratory infection: COPD sufferers are far more likely to catch a cold or flu virus or even pneumonia. An annual flu vaccine is thought to be a sensible way of preventing some of these infections, which can further damage lung tissue and make it even more difficult to breathe.

Patients with COPD are also more susceptible to heart problems, including heart disease and heart attacks, as well as lung cancer. High blood pressure in the arteries leading to a patient’s lungs can also be common in COPD sufferers. Patients are also far more at risk of suffering from depression as their ability to be active can be severely limited by COPD. This can cause a sense of helplessness as sufferers are prevented from completing activities they have previously enjoyed.

How is it treated?

Conventional treatments for COPD include the use of medication and breathing therapies. Medication can take many forms, including use of bronchodilators, steroid inhalers and combination inhalers. The bronchodilators vary in type and can be used daily or as necessary. This depends upon how severe the patient’s COPD is. They work by relaxing the muscles around the airways and easing the tightness felt in the sufferer’s chest when they try to breathe. Steroid inhalers are used by those who have severe and frequent attacks caused by their COPD. The steroids act in an anti-inflammatory way and can prevent more regular flare ups of the disease.

A course of oral steroids can be taken for a short period of time for those with moderate to severe COPD. These can be effective, but they have many side effects, so are not a long-term solution. In addition to corticosteroids, there are other medications which can be successful in reducing airway inflammation in COPD sufferers. These include newer drugs such as Phosphodiesterase-4 inhibitors and Theophylline. Both of these have disadvantages though, ranging from the cost of Theophylline to the side effects caused by both drugs, which include diarrhoea, weight loss, nausea, headaches and an increased heart rate. Antibiotics can also be useful, but only to treat severe aggravations: they are not recommended for long term use.

Lung therapies are the other treatment currently in use with sufferers of COPD. These take two forms. Oxygen therapy provides the sufferer with extra oxygen, often allowing the user to carry round a small, portable cylinder to top up their oxygen levels as and when they need it. More severe sufferers may need this constantly, but some users only require the extra oxygen while they are asleep. The other breathing therapy involves a pulmonary rehabilitation programme which combines training about exercise and diet as well as counselling to assist COPD sufferers with maintaining as active a life as possible.

New studies show that Thai chi is as good as conventional rehabilitation for patients with COPD.

Two recent studies focused on the effect of Tai chi on patients suffering from COPD. Tai chi originated as a Chinese martial art, but is now considered to be a supremely beneficial exercise which uses both mind and body. It has been used for some time now as part of many pulmonary rehabilitation programmes and is thought by many to improve the suffering of COPD sufferers.

The first study gathered data from 11 articles previously written comparing the effect of Tai chi with groups of patients on non-exercise based rehabilitation programmes as well as some patients who were on more traditional physical exercise programmes. Outcomes of the study were measured through the results of two different respiratory disease questionnaires and a six minute walking distance test.

Results of the study showed that patients with COPD really benefitted from the exercise. Those who had Tai chi as part of their treatment had increased six minute walking distances, as well as far better scores on the two questionnaires in comparison to the non-exercise group. When compared to the physical exercise group of the study, patients doing Tai chi had better scores on the questionnaires again, however there was no notable difference in the six minute walking distance test.

The second study compared Tai chi as a treatment to constant rate treadmill walking. The research looked at several factors, including patients’ oxygen uptake, changes in oesophageal pressure, the movement of the diaphragm and their lung capacity. On the whole, the measures for both treadmill walking and Tai chi were similar, demonstrating very little difference in the effect of both treatments. Respiratory rate was lower after Tai chi, and it also resulted in a decreased level of tension in the quadriceps muscle. The study concluded that Tai chi has a very similar effect to treadmill walking and might be effectively used as an alternative treatment of similar benefit to COPD patients.

In summary, both studies concluded that, whilst further research would shed more light on the long term effects of Tai chi on COPD patients, it is certainly a treatment which seems to be of great benefit to COPD sufferers where traditional treatments prove to have unpleasant side effects or be otherwise unsuccessful.


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