A pulmonary embolism (PE) can be life-threatening because a blockage in the lungs damages them and reduces the blood's ability to receive enough oxygen to support the rest of the body. With rapid treatment, most people affected by a pulmonary embolism can recover.
This article discusses breathing exercises and how to do them if you've recently had a pulmonary embolism.
About 1 in 1,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with a pulmonary embolism annually.
Generally, the diaphragm can easily move oxygen and other gases in and out of the lungs. After a pulmonary embolism, the lungs might have more difficulty completing this task. If practiced regularly, breathing exercises can help make the lungs more efficient.
Two types of breathing exercises that may help include:
- Pursed lip breathing is intended to reduce the number of breaths taken and to keep airways open a little longer. To practice this exercise, breathe in through the nose and breathe out about twice as long through pursed lips (as if you're using a straw).
- Belly breathing or diaphragmatic breathing: Start by breathing in through the nose and paying attention to how your belly fills with air. Breathe out through the mouth at least two to three times longer than you inhale. While doing this exercise, keep your shoulders and neck relaxed.
Other Recovery Strategies
Although there is no standard guideline for post-pulmonary embolism rehabilitation, there are best practices to help with recovery. Speak with your healthcare provider about which of the following exercises can help assist you with your overall health outcome:
- Exercise training can improve motor function and strengthen breathing muscles. Ensure that exercises help both upper extremity function (which helps decrease fatigue) and lower extremity function (which helps increase endurance and improves breathing function).
- Health education should include preventing pulmonary embolism, understanding your treatment options, and learning healthy habits to improve lung and overall body function.
- Psychological intervention: A life-threatening medical diagnosis can cause fear, anxiety, sadness, and post-traumatic stress, negatively affecting the healing process. Your healthcare providers should ensure you have resources to assist in regulating emotions, decreasing stress and anxiety, and modulating emotional reactions.
- Nutritional supplementation: PE can adversely affect nutrition, so speaking with a dietician who can provide a treatment and a recovery-friendly nutrition plan can be helpful.
Once a pulmonary embolism is diagnosed, the primary treatment is an anticoagulant; this medication is designed to stop the blood clot from growing and to give the body time to break the clot down naturally. It's typically used for three months or longer after a PE diagnosis. Since the use of anticoagulants requires some monitoring, expect follow-up appointments with your healthcare provider.
Any shortness of breath resulting from a PE typically resolves within a few weeks to months after the initial diagnosis. If shortness of breath remains six months after treatment, it is important to consult a healthcare provider. Further testing might be indicated to determine if the PE scarred the lung or the lung's blood vessels or if other treatments are needed.
Tips After a PE Diagnosis
Additional items your healthcare provider might encourage after a pulmonary embolism diagnosis include:
- Compression socks help increase pressure in the veins of the legs to prevent blood from pooling and clotting. Increased pressure forces the blood to keep moving, making it harder for a blood clot to form and break off, becoming a pulmonary embolism.
- Bleeding precautions: It's essential to be aware of anticoagulant interactions that may decrease their effectiveness. Examples of things to avoid while taking anticoagulants include alcohol, over-the-counter (OTC) medications (like aspirin), and certain foods.
A pulmonary embolism is a blood clot in the lungs that can block blood from being oxygenated to support the body's functions. Once a diagnosis is made and a treatment plan begins, it is helpful to learn breathing exercises to help the lungs regain optimal function.
There are also additional considerations for strength training, nutritional support, psychological care, and health education to assist with a successful recovery after a pulmonary embolism diagnosis.
A Word From Verywell
A life-threatening diagnosis of pulmonary embolism can be frightening and stressful. Understanding the disease condition is important, as is knowing how to regain optimal health and wellness. Collaborating with your healthcare provider is vital to ensure any additional activities or treatments are recommended and safe.
Frequently Asked Questions
How long will I be breathless after a pulmonary embolism?
Feeling short of breath after a pulmonary embolism can often resolve quickly. In 3% to 4% of people affected by a pulmonary embolism, the damage can cause scarring, which can cause shortness of breath for weeks or months. If you're still experiencing shortness of breath six months post-treatment, you must talk to your healthcare provider to determine if additional testing is required.
What are the long-term effects of a pulmonary embolism?
As with other lung conditions, people affected by a pulmonary embolism experience different degrees of respiratory symptoms and impaired motor functions for several weeks or months after the initial diagnosis.
Current best practices to improve health after a pulmonary embolism include breathing exercises, exercise training, health education, nutrition improvement, and psychological intervention if depression or anxiety is present.
How much exercise should you do after a pulmonary embolism?
Generally, exercise is safe until any pain or difficulty breathing is noted; if this happens, stop exercising immediately and contact your healthcare provider for further guidance. Before starting any exercise regimen, speak with your healthcare provider so they can ensure your lungs and motor function are stable enough.
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