Emphysema (COPD)

What is it?

Emphysema develops when many of the small air sacs or alveoli in the lungs are stretched out and lose their ability to empty out all of the air. Air becomes trapped in the alveoli and the alveoli become stretched out and over-inflated. This damage can cause the alveoli to come apart (rupture), and form one large air space instead of many small ones. The destruction of healthy air sacs makes it difficult for the lung to work properly. There are less alveoli to deliver oxygen to the bloodstream. The damage is progressive and, as lung tissue does not repair itself, the damage is permanent. The whole body suffers when the lung cannot deliver the essential oxygen and remove the carbon dioxide waste.

The increased pressure of the trapped air, over time, will shorten and flatten the diaphragm. This change in the shape of the diaphragm makes it much harder for the diaphragm to play its part in moving air in and out of the lungs. The diaphragm muscle becomes weak and fatigued. An additional result of the trapped air is that the chest cavity becomes larger (barrel chest) and the muscles in between the ribs become stretched out.  The change in the muscles of breathing significantly increases the work of breathing. Normally, the muscles of breathing require a low level of oxygen at rest (1 to 3%) but when you have COPD, the needed oxygen increases to as high as 25%.

Risks and symptoms

Emphysema damage is progressive and permanent. Emphysema significantly increases the work of breathing. Those with COPD may begin to notice symptoms of shortness of breath when they reach their mid-40s. Chronic cough and increased mucus production may also be present, but are usually not bad enough to cause concern.


COPD has no cure, yet there are treatments, along with the removal of irritants that will decrease the effects of COPD.