People with lung conditions like COPD and asthma are often breathless. Damage to airways and lung tissue means that the lungs fail to empty properly, a process called gas-trapping. Because their airways have narrowed and they have lost elastic recoil in their lungs, it is more difficult to exhale. They may start to breathe in before they have finished getting their breath out. During exercise, as they breathe more rapidly, this process gets worse causing dynamic hyperinflation. The more air there is in the lungs, the harder it is to breathe in. This increased work of breathing can cause breathlessness and panic.
Exercise training to improve fitness and inhaled medications can improve this but many people find that learning specific breathing techniques to slow their breathing down are helpful to improve their symptoms and reduce anxiety. This is part of pulmonary rehabilitation classes, which all respiratory patients who are limited by their breathlessness should have the chance to participate in. In addition, the British Lung Foundation (BLF) has Breathe Easy groups which are run by their members all over the country which provide support for people with lung disease.
Some groups have also branched into singing, such as the Breathe Easy support group run by Teresa Burgoyne, a retired respiratory nurse in Nottingham. Members are using singing to help them improve their breath control. Singing not only helps people breathe more easily, but it plays an important social role, bringing people together in a collective activity, which is enjoyable as well as helpful. Research carried out by the BLF, in collaboration with the Royal Brompton Hospital, shows that singing can improve quality of life in people with COPD and ongoing evaluation of singing programs suggests positive effects on physical and mental health.
We are now training more people to help groups who want to sing as part of their rehabilitation and we are hopeful that there will be greater uptake across the country. Singing could bring benefits to people with COPD, asthma and bronchiectasis, as well as IPF.
The British Lung Foundation’s Breathe Easy Week is taking place between 12-16 June. Its website provides further information on singing for lung health.