Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is a progressive disease in which shortness of breath is a common symptom. The feeling of breathlessness can cause panic, and even lead to a drop in your oxygen levels.

While there are a number of medications and treatments for COPD, you can also use breathing exercises and positioning techniques like the tripod position to help you when you feel like you can’t breathe.

The tripod position is simply a way to position your body that can relieve shortness of breath (dyspnea). Chances are, you have used this position before, maybe after intense exercise as you tried to catch your breath. Simply put, the tripod position involves bending forward to relieve shortness of breath and help reduce the amount of work your lungs need to do.

While this position is somewhat natural for many people when they are short of breath, the tripod position as a physiotherapy technique is a bit more specific.

You can use the tripod position while standing or sitting. If you’re standing, find a chair or something sturdy to lean on. If you’re seated, a tabletop or pillow may help, or you can also lean forward to use your legs as support.

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The tripod position is a physical pose that can help people breathe better. Photo by Monica Pardo

The following steps focus on getting into the tripod position while seated.

  1. First, make sure you are in a safe location. If you are short of breath, it can be easy to lose consciousness or fall.
  2. Choose a sturdy chair and get seated in a comfortable position.
  3. Lean forward, using your arms and elbows as support.
  4. Try to achieve an angle of about 45 degrees as you lean forward.
  5. You can rely on your arms or use a table top or pillow to help you hold this position.
  6. Take slow and steady breaths, focusing on using your belly (diaphragm) to breath.
  7. You may also use breathing techniques like pursed lip breathing to help reduce shortness of breath.

This seems like a pretty simplistic way to treat shortness of breath, but it’s what’s happening inside your body that has the most effect.

Leaning forward in the tripod position takes some of the pressure of breathing off your lungs. The effort of the diaphragm — the main muscle used to inhale — is increased in this position, and gravity helps the muscle to move down and increase the space in your thoracic cavity. The thoracic cavity houses your lungs, and the extra space around the lungs from this position helps them expand more, releasing carbon dioxide and increasing oxygen intake.

COPD is a chronic and progressive lung disease. In the past, this group of diseases was classified separately as either chronic bronchitis or emphysema, but they now fall under the same umbrella. In both diseases, there is some problem that makes it difficult to breathe.

In emphysema, the tiny air sacs in your lungs are damaged, making it more difficult to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide between lung tissue and your blood. This can cause carbon dioxide to become trapped in your body, leading to a toxic imbalance.

With chronic bronchitis, the bronchial tube becomes inflamed. This inflammation narrows the airway, making it difficult to pass air through. Mucous can also build up in the narrowed tube, causing even more difficulty breathing.

Treating COPD involves a combination of medications, lifestyle changes, and physical therapies.

The first step in treating COPD is changing your lifestyle to remove anything that may have contributed to the development of your disease. This can include reducing environmental toxins, but for many people with COPD smoking is a major cause. Quitting smoking can help slow progression of the disease, but it won’t cure the damage that is already done.

If your COPD has already progressed to the point that it is causing symptoms that affect your daily life, your doctor may prescribe you medications like:

  • short-acting or long-acting bronchodilator inhalers
  • anticholinergic inhalers
  • beta-2 agonist inhalers
  • steroid inhalers
  • various combinations of beta-2 agonist, anticholinergic, and steroid inhalers
  • oral steroids for severe cases

Physical therapy can help, too. Your doctor may suggest a pulmonary rehabilitation program to develop breathing techniques that can help when you become short of breath. Your doctor will also advise you on ways to avoid infections or exacerbations that can make your COPD worse.

If your disease is severe enough that it’s causing your oxygen level to drop, your doctor may also prescribe oxygen therapy or even suggest surgery, like a bullectomy or lung volume reduction surgery.

Your treatment regimen may change over time and with flare-ups. You may need to use a combination of therapies to keep your disease under control and manage acute exacerbations.

COPD is a chronic disease that gets worse over time for most people. Medications and oxygen therapy can help, but there are also body position and breathing techniques that can ease flare-ups.

The tripod position helps to lower your diaphragm and open your lung space to decrease shortness of breath. If you cannot catch your breath using this position, you should seek medical care.