While many people may assume that physiotherapy is the last thing that a person with respiratory issues should be doing, the opposite is in fact true. Proper breathing technique is a major part of most physical therapies, and physical training in general. Because of this, most physical therapists will be experts in proper breathing techniques, and can be extremely helpful to people who are suffering from respiratory issues.
Physiotherapists can be used to help people who have respiratory problems as a result of an underlying medical condition, or for someone who may be recovering from surgery or lung trauma. Two of the most commonly treated respiratory conditions in Ireland are asthma and Cystic Fibrosis.
As you may know, Ireland has the highest rate of Cystic Fibrosis in the world, as well as the fourth highest rate of asthma. Of the number of Irish people with Cystic Fibrosis who died between 2002 and 2010, 70% died as a result of respiratory/cardiac failure. This highlights the importance of training people with conditions like these, not only given the high death rate among the Cystic Fibrosis population, but also due to the prevalence of the disease in Irish society.
What Physiotherapy Entails
There are a number of ways that physiotherapy can be used to treat respiratory problems, depending on what the root cause is. Typically a person with such issues will have visited the doctor and found the underlying cause of their breathing trouble before visiting a therapist, as the problem could be caused from a direct problem with the lungs to something far less obvious, such as neurological issues. If the underlying cause has been identified and physiotherapy has been deemed suitable, the physiotherapist may conduct their own exam to properly identify what techniques should be used.
Many respiratory diseases are characterised by the buildup of fluid (known as sputum) in the lungs. In cases like these, postural drainage is a very common technique. This is where the physiotherapist will teach a patient to lie at certain angles or get into certain positions in order to help drain the lungs of fluid. This can be helped along by the use of patting or medical apparatus in many cases.
In most cases, the physiotherapist will assess how the patient breathes, and how this can be improved. This could range from assigning breathing exercises, to completely retraining how a person breathes. As each case is different, the exact advice given will vary.
Physiotherapy can also be used to train people how to breathe in an emergency. The majority of people visiting a physiotherapist for breathing problems will have episodes where they have difficulty breathing, such as asthma attacks. Physiotherapy can help people learn techniques to maximise their ability to breathe, reduce the frequency of these events, and prevent them from turning into emergencies.
Breathing exercises are useful not just because they actually get oxygen into the blood, but also because they work out the lungs and reduce the risk of further complications. They can also be used to retrain peoples' breathing, particularly after surgery. In patients with underlying conditions or who have had surgery, we will often find that the way they breathe instinctively and the most efficient way for them them to breathe are not the same. While breathing may seem like a simple matter of inhale-exhale to most of us, there are loads of subtle changes that can be made to make casual breathing considerably easier for people with respiratory issues.
Seeing a Physiotherapist
If you are having difficulty breathing, it is important to visit a doctor. If the underlying cause has been identified and you believe physiotherapy could help, be sure to speak up as much as possible. Things that you may feel are irrelevant could be hugely influential in the programme your therapist sets out, as you need to combine your body and their expertise if you want to achieve the best results.