Evidence Underlying Breathing Retraining in People With Stable Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

Gail Dechman, Christine R Wilson


The efficacy of pursed-lip breathing (PLB) and diaphragmatic breathing (DB) in the rehabilitation of people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) remains unclear. This review examines the evidence regarding the usefulness of these techniques in improving the breathing of people with stable COPD. The studies included in our review of the literature used either PLB or DB in isolation, contained a clear description of the methods, and used outcomes that were measured with what we considered to be appropriate procedures. Pursed-lip breathing slows the respiratory rate, and evidence suggests that this decreases the resistive pressure drop across the airways and, therefore, decreases airway narrowing during expiration. This decrease in airway narrowing may account for the decreased dyspnea some people experience when using this technique. Diaphragmatic breathing has negative and positive effects, but the latter appear to be caused by simply slowing the respiratory rate. Evidence supports the use of PLB, but not DB, for improving the breathing of people with COPD.

Despite many studies on the topic, the role of breathing retraining techniques such as pursed-lip breathing (PLB)1 and diaphragmatic breathing (DB)2 in the rehabilitation of people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) remains unclear. This is because many of the studies on the use of breathing retraining are poorly conducted, lack control groups, use small heterogeneous samples, and frequently use poorly described methods. Furthermore, researchers often examine a combination of retraining techniques, which makes it impossible to attribute outcomes to any single technique. The results from some of the small and better designed studies are clear; however, combining these results to obtain a single unified statement regarding the value of a particular breathing exercise is unrealistic because of disease heterogeneity in the subjects and differences in study designs.

One solution to this problem would be to conduct well-designed, multicenter, randomized controlled trials using state-of-the-art technology. These trials, however, are unlikely to occur because they are expensive and difficult to conduct. Another approach is to examine the literature to determine the mechanisms responsible for the therapeutic effects of each of these techniques. With this understanding, we believe that therapists can select interventions based on a patient's clinical findings and thus, in theory, improve the effectiveness of the intervention provided. The purposes of this review, therefore, are to examine the separate effects of PLB and DB and to identify the mechanisms responsible for improvements in people with COPD.


We searched PubMed (1966 to January 2003) and the Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature (CINAHL, 1982 to January 2003) for articles published in English. The following terms were used in the search: “breathing retraining,” “breathing exercises,” “pursed-lip(s) breathing,” “diaphragmatic breathing,” “chronic obstructive pulmonary disease” and its acronym “COPD,” “chronic obstructive lung disease” and its acronym “COLD,” “chronic bronchitis,” and “emphysema.” To obtain additional articles, we also reviewed the reference lists from relevant articles.

We restricted our review to studies that examined a single retraining technique so that the effect of the technique could be clearly assessed. Because our focus was on patients with COPD, reports that included subjects diagnosed with asthma, cystic fibrosis, primary bronchiectasis, or pulmonary fibrosis were not included in the review. We excluded investigations when the methods were not clearly defined. Studies also were excluded if inappropriate statistical analysis made it impossible to evaluate the effect of the intervention. We included studies where randomized controlled methods were not used, because very few of the studies would meet this strict requirement. We did not attempt to combine study results as in a meta-analysis. We retrieved 397 publications and excluded 375 from this review. Table 1 lists the various reasons these articles were excluded.

Table 1.

Reasons for Excluding Articles From Review

In this review, the severity of COPD is indicated by providing adjectives used by the authors and by the spirometric data they reported. Currently, COPD severity is commonly classified according to the standards published in the Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD).3 In these standards, disease severity is based on airflow limitation as measured by spirometry, and spirometric values are expressed as “percent predicted” using appropriate normal values for the person's sex, age, and height. Table 2 lists the GOLD disease severity classifications.

Table 2.

Disease Severity Classifications for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) According to Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD) Standards3

An earlier classification system developed by Pennock et al4 also identifies normal limits for lung volumes. They based their classification system on the Gaussian distribution of pulmonary function test results in subjects without pulmonary disease and used the coefficient of variation to determine normal ranges. According to this classification system, COPD is present when: residual volume is >140% predicted, functional residual capacity is >130% predicted, total lung capacity is >120% predicted, or maximum voluntary ventilation is <75% predicted. The authors did not attempt to distinguish disease severity.

Pursed-Lip Breathing

Faling described PLB as “usually the easiest breathing technique to learn and it is often (but not uniformly) employed instinctively by those who benefit from its use. Patients inhale through the nose over several seconds with the mouth closed and then exhale slowly over 4 to 6 seconds through pursed lips held in a whistling or kissing position. This is done with or without contraction of the abdominal muscles.”1(p600) Faling recommended that PLB should be used during or following any activity that makes the patient tachypneic or dyspneic. He contended that relief of dyspnea is almost immediate after starting to use the technique.

Clinical Outcomes of PLB

Several investigators have examined the effect of PLB on ventilatory parameters and arterial blood gases in people with COPD. They uniformly reported that the technique decreases respiratory rate,510 minute ventilation (V̇e),8 and partial pressure of carbon dioxide in arterial blood (Paco2)710 and increases tidal volume (Vt).710 Pursed-lip breathing also has been documented to increase partial pressure of oxygen in arterial blood (Pao2)7,8 and the percentage of hemoglobin sites that are bound to oxygen in arterial blood (Sao2).7,8,11 Changes in oxygen consumption (V̇o2) are less consistent.68 Pursed-lip breathing has been reported to decrease dyspnea8,11 and, therefore, may improve exercise tolerance12,13 and reduce limitations in activities of daily living.14

Changes in Ventilation and Lung Volume

In 1963, Motley7 published data that suggested that the decreased respiratory rate associated with PLB accounted for the technique's beneficial effects. He compared spontaneous breathing with slow, deep breathing in 35 people with severe COPD (residual volume >200% predicted, vital capacity=72% predicted, maximum breathing capacity=39% predicted) and contrasted the results with those from a control group of 20 people. Motley7 reported that when the subjects slowed their respiratory rate (average rate fell from 15 to 9), Vt increased (average Vt increased from 494 mL to 814 mL) and V̇e was unchanged, Sao2 was increased (from 89.5% to 92.1%), and Paco2 was decreased (from 40 mm Hg to 37 mm Hg).

Three years after Motley's report7 appeared, Thoman and colleagues10 reported on comparisons of spontaneous breathing, PLB, and slow, deep breathing. This was done in an attempt to clarify whether the effects of PLB were due to slowing the respiratory rate. They studied a group of 21 people with COPD who were comparable to those in Motley's study (residual volume=270% predicted, vital capacity=71% predicted, maximum voluntary ventilation=32% predicted). The investigators reported that PLB slowed breathing frequency (from 19 to 12 breaths per minute) and that both slow, deep breathing and PLB resulted in a similar increase in Vt (from a baseline of 0.61 L to 0.82 L and 0.84 L, for slow, deep breathing and PLB, respectively). These changes resulted in a decrease in Paco2 (from a baseline of 55 mm Hg to 52 mm Hg and 51 mm Hg, for slow, deep breathing and PLB, respectively) that was not associated with a change in slow space volume (volume of the poorly ventilated airspaces) or functional residual capacity. The authors concluded that the effects of PLB could be attributed to slowing the respiratory rate. They also proposed that the lack of change in functional residual capacity in this group of individuals with hyperinflation (excessive air trapping resulting in an end expiratory lung volume [EELV] above normal, predicted functional residual capacity) suggested that neither technique was effective in improving the position of the diaphragm. Taken together, these findings suggest that the positive effects of PLB most likely are due to slowing the respiratory rate and that pursing the lips may only be a means to achieving the slower rate.

Tiep et al15 and Campbell and Friend16 also investigated the effects of PLB in people with COPD and reported results similar to those in the studies discussed. Unfortunately, the study by Tiep et al15 must be viewed with caution. The authors used a custom-designed pneumovest to measure breathing pattern variables, but they did not include any information on the validity or reliability of data obtained using this equipment. The other significant methodological concern is related to subject selection bias. Subjects were included in the experimental group only if, after training, they could increase their Sao2 using PLB. The control group did not receive similar training, so the 2 groups were not comparable. Campbell and Friend16 are often quoted in reviews of PLB; however, they investigated a combination of exercises that included relaxation exercises, slowing the respiratory rate to prolong expiration, and a form of DB. The effects of PLB alone, therefore, cannot be determined.

Dyspnea Relief

Mueller et al8 examined the mechanisms underlying the dyspnea relief commonly associated with PLB. Twelve subjects with COPD were divided into 2 groups based on whether PLB relieved their symptoms. Mueller et al stated that all subjects had been adequately trained and were capable of performing PLB correctly. The 7 responders (forced expiratory volume in 1 second/ forced vital capacity [FEV1/FVC]=48% predicted, maximum voluntary ventilation=42% predicted) were classified as people who stated definitively, on more than one occasion, that PLB relieved their feelings of breathlessness. The 5 nonresponders (FEV1/FVC=41% predicted, maximum voluntary ventilation=36% predicted) reported no improvement in their symptoms. Ventila-tory, blood gas, and gas exchange variables were measured during spontaneous breathing and PLB. Arterial blood gas measures improved similarly (Paco2 decreased by 4 mm Hg, Pao2 increased by 4 mm Hg, and Sao2 increased by 2%–3%) in both groups during PLB. Oxygen uptake was not different between the groups during spontaneous breathing or PLB. In contrast, although PLB reduced respiratory rate in both groups (from 16 to 9 breaths per minute in responders and from 16 to 12 breaths per minute in nonresponders), only the responders had increased Vt (from 0.75 L to 1.19 L). These results suggest that the relief of dyspnea associated with PLB probably is due to changes in the mechanical function of the respiratory system and not to alterations in gas exchange or the metabolic work of breathing.

Only one other study has attempted to determine the cause of dyspnea relief attributed to PLB. Ingram and Schilder11 used expiratory resistive loading (ERL) to simulate PLB in subjects with COPD. Subjects wore noseclips and breathed through a mouthpiece, which provided a known resistance that approximated the resistance produced during PLB. Changes in mechanical properties of the lung were measured in response to short episodes of ERL. Fifteen subjects with moderate COPD were divided into responders (n=8, FEV1=45% predicted, maximum voluntary ventilation=29% predicted) and nonresponders (n=7, FEV1=45% predicted, maximum voluntary ventilation=43% predicted) based on symptom relief while using PLB. Four people without known pulmonary disease served as control subjects. Pulmonary function testing indicated that 5 of the 8 subjects in the responder group demonstrated tracheobronchial collapse during expiration. None of the other subjects exhibited this phenomenon. Expiratory resistive loading resulted in an increase in expiratory time (data not reported in the original article), which was associated, in both groups, with decreases in mean expiratory flow (from 0.49 L/s to 0.45 L/s and from 0.54 L/s to 0.38 L/s, in responders and nonresponders, respectively) and peak expiratory flow (from 1 L/s to 0.6 L/s and from 0.9 L/s to 0.5 L/s, in responders and nonresponders, respectively).

Ingram and Schilder11 identified subject characteristics that may have accounted for the symptom relief associated with ERL. They calculated an index of large airway collapsibility in each subject, which was used to identify the degree of airway narrowing that occurred when breathing without ERL. Responders had a higher index of collapsibility than nonresponders and control subjects. The authors also calculated the effectiveness of the external resistor in decreasing pulmonary resistance and reported that the decrease was greater in the responders than the nonresponders (51% versus 24%). When the effectiveness was plotted against the collapsibility index, it was found that ERL was most effective in decreasing lung resistance in responders who demonstrated airway collapse during expiration during unobstructed breathing. The authors hypothesized that, according to the Bernoulli effect, the decrease in expiratory flow with ERL would decrease the pressure drop across the airway wall, thus reducing airway collapse. Simply decreasing the respiratory rate also could decrease expiratory flow and the resistive pressure drop across the airway, supporting the assertions by Motley7 and Thoman et al10 that the effects of PLB are primarily due to slowing the respiratory rate.

Ingram and Schilder11 also noted that ERL increased EELV in all groups, suggesting that the dyspnea relief (which occurred in responders only) was not due to improved mechanical efficiency of the diaphragm. End expiratory lung volume increased least in the responder group (125 mL versus 414 mL in the nonresponders), and the authors argued that this finding indicated that increases in airway diameter were not responsible for the drop in lung resistance and dyspnea relief found in the responders observed with ERL.

The findings of a study by O'Donnell and Webb17 may explain the relationship of increases in EELV to symptom relief during PLB. Using regression analysis, the authors reported that dynamic hyperinflation (hyper-inflation that occurs during breathing) accounted for a large proportion (38%) of dyspnea in a group of people with COPD during cycle ergometry. Theoretically, hyperinflation decreases lung compliance, which would increase the work of breathing and could reduce Vt. These changes, in combination with impaired respiratory muscle function at increased EELV, could limit the body's ability to respond to the increased ventilatory demand during cycling. Thus, the increase in EELV, which occurred during ERL in the study by Ingram and Schilder,11 may explain why the nonresponder group did not naturally use PLB.

Work of Breathing

Two other important points arise from the work of Ingram and Schilder.11 First, ERL increased the overall mechanical work during a breath because resistances in series (ERL+airway resistance) are additive. Expiratory resistive loading decreased lung resistance but not the total system resistance; airway resistance, therefore, was still greater than in the unobstructed state. The authors, therefore, felt that it was unlikely that dyspnea relief during PLB was related to a decrease in the work of breathing. Second, the changes in dyspnea occurred over a short period of time (6 breaths) and coincided with mechanical changes in respiratory system function. Given this time frame, the authors suggested that changes in gas exchange variables could not account for the almost immediate dyspnea relief noted by people who use PLB.11

O'Donnell et al18 also investigated the effects of ERL on ventilatory mechanics in a group of people with COPD. Their findings are similar to those of other studies cited in this review. Expiratory resistive loading was associated with an increase in EELV (100 mL) and decreases in V̇e (from 13.1 L/min to 12.6 L/min), peak expiratory flow (from 0.56 L/s to 0.45 L/s), and mean expiratory flow (from 0.34 L/s to 0.32 L/s). The authors attributed these changes to a reduction in airway compression in the subjects who had expiratory flow limitation when breathing at rest. O'Donnell and colleagues proposed that people with COPD have “a very fine control of expiratory flow whereby intrathoracic pressure is continuously adjusted to a level that is just enough to attain maximal flow.”18(p105) Furthermore, they proposed that this active control develops with the disease process, suggesting that imposing retraining techniques is not uniformly helpful in this population.

Oxygen Consumption

Changes in V̇o2 and, by inference, changes in the work of breathing that occur with PLB appear to result from alterations in muscle function associated with the technique. Jones et al6 reported a decrease in V̇o2 (from 175 mL O2/min to 165 mL O2/min) during PLB, whereas other researchers7,8 have reported that V̇o2 is essentially unchanged by the technique. Only one study has investigated the pattern of respiratory muscle use during PLB in people with COPD.5 Breslin5 studied 13 people with COPD (FEV1=37%±12% predicted [X̄±SD] during spontaneous breathing and PLB. She assessed rib cage and accessory muscle activity and abdominal and diaphragm muscle activity by measuring esophageal and gastric pressures, respectively. Breslin reported that, during PLB, decreased diaphragm activity during inspiration was accompanied by increased use of rib cage muscles. Both abdominal and rib cage accessory muscle activity increased during expiration. Respiratory rate decreased (from 22 to 15 breaths per minute) as did the duty cycle (inspiratory time divided by total cycle time; from 0.48 to 0.35). Unfortunately, interpretation of these results is limited because the author did not measure V̇o2 or Vt during PLB. In addition, Breslin's estimate of the resting diaphragm tension-time index (0.17) indicates that, as a group, the subjects were above the diaphragm fatigue threshold (0.15) described by Bellemare and Grassino.19 A breathing pattern above this threshold purportedly leads to imminent respiratory failure.19 These data are surprising because all of the subjects lived in the community and were medically stable.

Thompson et al20 examined inspiratory muscle recruitment during ERL in 14 people with severe COPD (FEV1/FVC=29% predicted) and 10 control subjects without pulmonary disease. Respiratory muscle function was assessed noninvasively and included both diaphragm and accessory muscle activity. Thompson and colleagues20 discovered that ERL decreased total inspira-tory muscle activity by 12% in the COPD group. They were careful to note, however, that changes in expiratory muscle function, as noted by Breslin,5 could account for the lack of change in Sao2 and end tidal CO2 they observed and the increase in total V̇o2. Interestingly, although Motley7 stated that V̇o2 did not change for the experimental group as a whole, data plots demonstrated that PLB increased V̇o2 in at least 12 of the 35 subjects. It is difficult to assess this discrepancy because he did not present the means and standard deviations for his data. Changes in EELV and respiratory system resistance11 could account for increases in respiratory muscle activity and V̇o2.

Some of the reports we cite here have used ERL as a surrogate for PLB. The advantage of using ERL is that it allows investigators to apply a known airway resistance. During PLB, resistance could vary greatly among subjects, especially if they are unfamiliar with the technique.21 Some investigators,20,21 however, have suggested that ERL does not adequately mimic PLB, and, therefore, they recommend that it should not be used to examine the breathing retraining technique.

Recently, Spahija and Grassino21 investigated these differences in a group of subjects without known pulmonary disease at rest and during cycle ergometry. They concluded that the 2 techniques resulted in different breathing patterns and EELV. Expiratory resistive loading and PLB both decreased expiratory flow (from a baseline value of 0.35 L/s to 0.29 L/s and 0.33 L/s for ERL and PLB, respectively), but ERL produced a much smaller prolongation in expiratory time (37% versus 71%) and failed to produce the changes in respiratory rate and Vt that were associated with PLB. Pursed-lip breathing caused the respiratory rate to fall from 15 to 10 and Vt to rise from 0.80 L to 1.3 L, whereas ERL produced a respiratory rate of 13 and a Vt of 0.9 L. In contrast, the changes in breathing pattern in response to ERL in people without pulmonary symptoms that were reported by Hill et al22 and Gothe and Cherniack23 were qualitatively similar to the changes stimulated by PLB in the work of Spahija and Grassino.21 Spahija and Grassino found that ERL increased EELV, whereas it remained unchanged with PLB. Interestingly, Spahija and Grassino did not consider the 3% to 4% increase in the 6-L vital capacity to be functionally meaningful. Ingram and Schilder11 and Thompson et al20 demonstrated increases in EELV in people without pulmonary disease in their studies (600 mL and 130 mL, respectively). No one has compared PLB and ERL in people with COPD. These findings suggest that clinicians should use caution when interpreting studies that use ERL to examine the effects of PLB and that more investigations are needed to examine the comparability of these 2 techniques in people with COPD.

Summary of the Evidence Regarding Pursed-Lip Breathing

The experimental work presented here suggests that PLB does relieve dyspnea in selected subjects; however, we are not yet able to identify those people beforehand. The evidence suggests that there is little benefit in continuing to teach the technique to patients who do not learn it rather quickly. In those people who do experience dyspnea relief while using PLB, the technique seems to optimize the mechanical function of the lungs, limiting increases in EELV and, therefore, the deleterious effects of hyperinflation. The evidence suggests that the symptom relief during PLB occurs despite an increase in the metabolic work of breathing. Patients need to be taught to use “just enough” positive airway pressure. Allowing patients to use excessive resistance may increase the work of breathing to the point where the cost-benefit ratio is no longer favorable. If the positive effects associated with PLB can be maintained during exercise, activity tolerance should improve. To date, however, no studies have systematically investigated this aspect of therapy.

Diaphragmatic Breathing

Gosselink et al described DB as “facilitating outward motion of the abdominal wall while reducing upper rib cage motion during inspiration.”24(p1140) Accordingly, individual skill in performing DB is assessed by observation or measurement of abdominal excursion during the respiratory cycle. Patients can be taught to perform the maneuver while maintaining abdominal muscle relaxation,25 a technique that ensures that inspiration begins from functional residual capacity. Alternatively, abdominal muscle contraction during expiration may be encouraged.12 Theoretically, expiratory muscle activation lengthens the diaphragm and increases its force-generating capacity.26 The use of additional muscles during active expiration, however, may increase the energy cost of breathing.

Improvement in Ventilation

Researchers have examined how DB affects overall ventilation, the regional distribution of ventilation, and gas exchange. Changes in overall ventilation have been measured using inhaled radioactive xenon in 6 subjects with COPD (residual volume: 200%–580% predicted).27 Xenon washout times indicated that overall ventilation was unaffected in 3 subjects, yet increased by 20% in another 3 subjects. In the subjects who showed an increase in overall ventilation, DB was accomplished by large increases in Vt (56%–106% of eupneic Vt) and no change in V̇e, which indicates a substantial slowing of respiratory frequency. Using data from the article to calculate respiratory rate, we determined that the average resting breathing rate was 22 breaths per minute and the average diaphragmatic breathing rate was 12 breaths per minute. Brach et al27 concluded that any individual changes in ventilation were probably due to the shift to slower, deeper breathing regardless of a DB pattern.

Campbell and Friend16 postulated that the increased abdominal motion during DB may shift ventilation toward the bases of the lungs. In the study cited above, Brach et al27 found that DB did not alter regional ventilation for the group as a whole. Two people, however, increased ventilation to the base of one lung by more than 20%. Unfortunately, the authors were not able to explain this finding. Although the study by Sackner et al28 is often quoted, it is not included here for 2 reasons: several subjects had asthma, and respiratory inductive plethysmographic measurements demonstrated that half of the subjects had minimal abdominal displacement during DB.

Improvements in ventilation also might be reflected as decreases in carbon dioxide levels or improvements in oxygenation. Becklake et al29 measured oxygenation using oximetry at rest and during exercise in 6 subjects with chronic emphysema (mean residual volume=156% predicted). Each subject received at least 3 instructional sessions from a physical therapist regarding the importance of abdominal movement, expiration, and general relaxation during DB. Citing previous literature,30 Beck-lake et al29 considered a >4% change in Sao2 to be clinically meaningful, given the day-to-day fluctuations in the disease state. Oxygen saturation improved by >4% in only 1 subject, whereas it dropped by >4% in 2 subjects. For the group, DB had no clinically meaningful effect on Sao2 measurements taken at rest (a 0.7% increase) or during exercise (a 3% decrease). Although Miller31 and Vitacca et al32 have reported much larger changes in Pao2 and Paco2, these studies combined DB with other breathing modifications, which make it impossible to determine the effect of DB alone.

Normalization of Breathing Pattern

Sackner et al33 reported the effects of DB on Vt and respiratory frequency in 9 patients with COPD (FEV1=55%±19% predicted [X̄±SD], FEV1/FVC= 52%±13% predicted [X̄±SD]). Respiratory inductance plethysmography was used to measure chest wall movements, and these changes were calibrated using spiro-metric measurements to indicate actual volume changes. Subjects were studied in the supine position with and without visual feedback about abdominal excursion. The presence of visual feedback did not affect the results. Diaphragmatic breathing was associated with an average 22% increase in Vt and 25% increase in inspiratory time. Respiratory frequency and V̇e did not change because of intersubject variability. A report with similar methods by Willeput et al34 is not included here because 3 of the 11 subjects had tuberculosis and because they had neither emphysema nor chronic bronchitis.

Another study by Sackner et al35 showed that DB was associated with distorted chest wall motion. Seven people with COPD (FEV1=52%±20% predicted [X̄±SD]) were studied in the supine position, and they were asked to breathe in 3 ways: normally or with increased abdominal or rib cage movement. Chest wall motion was recorded using respiratory inductance plethysmography, and signals were analyzed for paradoxical motions (abdomen or rib cage moving in opposite directions) and asynchronous motions (difference in rate of change of movement in the rib cage or abdominal compartment). Diaphragmatic breathing caused increased paradoxical and asynchronous movements of the rib cage. The amount of asynchrony was not correlated with disease severity.

Decrease in the Work of Breathing and Dyspnea

Two groups of researchers6,24 have measured V̇o2 to assess the effect of DB on the work of breathing. Jones et al6 showed that DB decreased resting V̇o2 by 5% in 30 people with moderately severe COPD (FEV1=39%± 13% predicted [X̄±SD]) who were placed in the supine position. They attributed most of this change to the 14% fall in respiratory rate, rather than to the increased movement of the abdominal wall. Subjects were included in the study if they were observed performing the technique adequately. However, in the study by Sackner et al33 cited previously, subjects were included who were observed to be able to perform DB, but half of the subjects had minimal increases in abdominal movement when measured by respiratory inductance plethysmography.

Gosselink et al24 report increased V̇o2 and work of breathing in 7 people with severe COPD (FEV1=34%±7% predicted [X̄±SD]) who performed DB with no spontaneous changes in respiratory frequency. Although the subjects' position was not stated, the seated posture was probably used. We assumed that this posture was used because chest wall motion was assessed by measuring the transit time of sound waves through flexible hollow tubes, and a recumbent position would have made this measurement difficult. After 3 weeks of training, only those people who were able to at least double their abdominal movement were included in the study. Measurements were taken while the patients performed either spontaneous breathing or DB, while at rest or while breathing against a threshold load. Threshold loading requires a person to generate enough inspiratory pressure to open a valve before inspiratory air flow can occur. This method of loading the inspiratory muscles may mimic the additional respiratory muscle load generated by dynamic hyperinflation that occurs in some people with COPD during exercise. The work of breathing (mechanical efficiency) was calculated according to the method of Collett et al,36 which relates changes in mechanical work to changes in V̇o2 during loaded breathing. Gosselink et al24 found that, during resting breathing, DB increased V̇o2 (by an average of 17 mL/min) but had no effect on Vt, breathing frequency, duty cycle (inspiratory time divided by total respiratory cycle time), or V̇e. When compared with natural breathing under loaded conditions, DB during loaded breathing was associated with a lower mechanical efficiency, increased paradoxical rib cage motions, and no change in V̇o2 or dyspnea. We retrieved no other studies that investigated the effect of DB alone on dyspnea in people with COPD.

Summary of the Evidence Regarding Diaphragmatic Breathing

Evidence indicates that DB does not change regional ventilation in people with COPD. This technique may increase total ventilation but, if so, the evidence suggests this may be due to the slower, deeper breathing pattern that may occur during DB rather than an exaggeration of abdominal motion. Diaphragmatic breathing also may increase asynchronous and paradoxical rib cage motion, which may account for the increase in the work of breathing noted by some authors. There is little information on the effect of DB in altering dyspnea, although one study24 showed that there was no effect under conditions of threshold loading. Consequently, the evidence suggests that there is no benefit to training people with COPD to perform this skilled maneuver beyond the benefit that might be achieved by simply slowing the breathing rate or using PLB.

Limitations to the Literature Reviewed

There are several limitations to the literature we cited in this review. The researchers used small sample sizes, which decreases the power to detect treatment effects. Most of the researchers examined the effect of PLB or DB interventions on impairments. Only one study24 investigated the functional limitations of dyspnea. There are no reports of investigations of the effect of either PLB or DB on disability, morbidity, or mortality. In addition, only short-term effects have been measured. Last, there appear to be no data available that define clinically meaningful changes in respiratory rate, Vt, or carbon dioxide level. In one research report,30 a 4% change in oxygen saturation was stated to be clinically meaningful. The alinear relationship between Sao2 and Pao2,37 however, indicates that the clinical meaningfulness of a given change in Sao2 will depend, in part, on the initial Sao2 value.


Careful examination of the literature on DB and PLB reveals that the use of PLB appears to be an effective way to decrease dyspnea and improve gas exchange in people with moderate to severe, but stable, COPD. These positive effects appear to be related to the technique's ability to decrease airway narrowing during expiration, an effect attributed to decreasing the resistive pressure drop across the airway wall. Thus, PLB could only be expected to be beneficial to those people with narrowing of larger airways during expiration, which would exclude people with mild disease. Only a few studies demonstrated positive effects during DB. These effects appeared to be associated with slowing the respiratory rate and not improving ventilation or V̇o2. Pursed-lip breathing is often adopted naturally, and DB requires skill and extensive training. Our interpretation of the evidence is that PLB can be a valuable rehabilitation tool in selected cases and that there is no rationale for teaching DB to this patient population. Traditionally, physical therapists classify DB and PLB as breathing retraining techniques. To date, no studies were found that investigated patients' ability to use these techniques during functional activities, which may require use of the techniques over prolonged periods of time. This should be a focus of future research.


  • Both authors provided concept/idea/project design, writing, clerical support, and consultation (including review of manuscript before submission). Dr Dechman provided project management.

    This paper was presented as an educational session at Combined Sections Meeting of the American Physical Therapy Association, Boston, Mass, February 23, 2002. The conference proceedings were published in Cardiopulmonary Physical Therapy Journal. 2002;13:20–21.


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