Five Top Tips for managing Breathlessness

Breathlessness can be an uncomfortable and distressing symptom for people experiencing COPD, Pulmonary Fibrosis, Cancer, and Heart Failure. Although medication can help manage these conditions, other approaches may be helpful in managing breathlessness.
Published on: Thursday 16 Mar 2023 at 15:56

In our latest blog, Physiotherapist, Alexandra Smith, shares her ‘Five Top Tips’ for managing breathlessness without medication.

1. Pursed-Lip BreathingPerson blowing bubbles with pursed lips

Pursed-lip breathing is a simple breathing technique that can help reduce shortness of breath. It involves inhaling slowly through the nose and exhaling slowly through pursed lips. This technique can help slow down breathing and improve oxygen flow to the body.

To do pursed-lip breathing, sit comfortably and relax your shoulders. Inhale slowly through your nose and then purse your lips with a small gap as if you were going to whistle. Exhale slowly through your pursed lips. You could think about ‘smelling the roses and blowing out the candle’. Repeat this cycle for several minutes until you feel better.

Even if you are breathing fast, try to breathe out fully to allow more room for the next breath in.

2. Changing positions

Changing your position can also help manage breathlessness. Some positions can help open up the airways and make breathing easier, you may already be doing this!

Often, sitting upright with your arms supported can help open up the chest and make breathing easier.

Some people find that leaning forwards with a straight back helps too. Either leaning over a table whilst standing, or sitting with cushions on your lap.

Many people find having an open window or handheld fan blowing air on your face also really helps.

3. Abdominal Breathing

Abdominal (or diaphragmatic) breathing is another breathing technique that can help manage breathlessness. It involves breathing from your tummy instead of your chest or shoulders. This technique can increase the efficiency of breathing and help get oxygen to the largest parts of the lungs.

To do abdominal breathing, sit or lie down comfortably and place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. Relax your shoulders. Inhale slowly through your nose, keeping the chest relatively still but allowing your stomach to rise, pushing your hand outwards like you have a balloon in your tummy.

Then exhale slowly through your mouth, relaxing and allowing the air to flow out with a pause at the end. Repeat this cycle for several minutes until you feel better.

4. Relaxation Techniques

Relaxation techniques, such as guided imagery and mindfulness, can help manage breathlessness by reducing stress and tension. Worry and anxiety can exacerbate breathlessness, so relaxation techniques can help calm the mind and body.

You can practice using guided imagery yourself, or videos to follow can be found online, including on the St Clare website.

Click here to view St Clare’s online classes and exercises.

‘Guided imagery’ involves picturing the details of a comforting scene in your mind, fully involving the senses in that scene, thereby calming the mind and allowing yourself to take some time away from the everyday worries and anxious thoughts. Done regularly, this can lower your overall stress level, meaning that breathless episodes won’t cause panic.

Mindfulness involves doing activities that help you to be fully aware of the present moment, and therefore calm worrying thoughts about the future or dwelling on memories of the past. Again there are audio or video guides to mindfulness, but you might also find it in distracting activities such as arts and crafts, cooking or being in nature.

It does take some practice to learn how to do this, but spending time not thinking about your breathing may help to calm the anxiety that arises from being breathless.

5. Staying Active

Exercise can help manage breathlessness by improving lung function and overall fitness.

You may feel that exercising, even going for a walk, feels difficult due to being out of breath. However, a little breathlessness is needed to help the body maintain its fitness, and keeping muscles strong helps the body to use oxygen effectively.

It is best to consult your healthcare professional before starting an exercise routine, but often walking is a good place to start. Aim to do ‘little and often’. Of course, pacing yourself and recognising when you need to rest is also very important.

St Clare’s Breathlessness Group

Breathlessness is often an uncomfortable symptom of many conditions, but feeling in control of your breathing and knowing what to do when you become breathless, can help to give you confidence to continue doing the things you want to in life.

At St Clare Hospice, we offer a 4-week course which can help you manage the symptoms of breathlessness.

The Breathlessness Group is run by our Physiotherapist and is normally held on a Thursday afternoon, at the main Hospice site in Hastingwood. The group also gives you the chance to connect with others experiencing the same thing.

One-to-one appointments to develop a personalised plan can also be offered in the Hospice’s Wellbeing Hub, or at home for those who are unable to get out.

Get in touch

Breathlessness is a common symptom for people experiencing COPD, Pulmonary Fibrosis, Cancer, and Heart Failure.

If you think you could benefit from the support of our Breathlessness Group or Physiotherapist, please get in touch. We’d love to hear from you.

Call our First Contact Service: 01279 773774


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