What Treatment Options Are Available for Restrictive Lung Disease?

Medically reviewed by Suzanne Falck, MD on March 28, 2017Written by James Roland on March 28, 2017

Restrictive lung disease

If your lungs can’t hold as much air as they used to, you may have a restrictive lung disease. This breathing problem occurs when the lungs grow stiffer. Sometimes the cause relates to a problem with the chest wall. When your lungs can’t expand as much as they once did, it could also be a muscular or nerve condition.

The symptoms of restrictive lung disease include:

  • shortness of breath
  • wheezing
  • coughing
  • chest pain

There are a variety of treatments that can help ease some of those symptoms. Your doctor will determine the treatment you need by the type and severity of the restrictive lung disease you have. Your age, medical history, and overall health are also key factors to consider. In general, treatment focuses on making breathing easier and slowing the progression of the disease.

Inhalers

These handheld devices can deliver quick blasts of corticosteroids or medications into your bronchial tubes to relax them. These medications also fight inflammation in the lungs. If you have a type of restrictive lung disease known as interstitial lung disease, the walls of the air sacs in your lungs become inflamed. Over time, the walls can become scarred. This causes the lungs to become stiff. Inhalers may be effective in controlling inflammation and reversing the disease.

Some examples of inhaled corticosteroids include:

Immunosuppressants

Some types of restrictive lung diseases stem from autoimmune connective tissue disorders. An autoimmune disease causes the body’s immune system to attack healthy cells. An immune system that goes after connective tissue can affect the lungs, other organs, and the lining of your joints, scarring them and making them harder. Some of these disorders include rheumatoid arthritis (RA), scleroderma, and Sjogren’s syndrome.

Medications known as immunosuppressants act by blocking the action of the body’s immune system. People who have advanced lung disease and need a lung transplant usually take immunosuppressants. These drugs help prevent your body from rejecting a new lung. People can receive these medications through an IV or take them as capsules.

Some examples of immunosuppressants include:

  • cyclosporine (Neoral, Restasis)
  • azathioprine (Imuran, Azasan)
  • daclizumab (Zenapax)
  • basiliximab (Simulect)

Expectorants

Certain types of restrictive lung diseases, such as pneumoconiosis, can cause a buildup of phlegm and mucus in your airways. Breathing in certain kinds of dust particles can cause pneumoconiosis. People who work in factories and mines are at higher risk. When the lungs can’t get rid of the dust they become scarred.

Expectorants come in pill or liquid form. These medications make it easier to clear your airways of mucus. Some examples of expectorants are:

  • guaifenesin (Mucinex)
  • potassium iodide (Pima)
  • carbocysteine (Availnex)

Oxygen therapy

If your restrictive lung disease is limiting the amount of oxygen reaching your organs, muscles, and other tissue through your bloodstream, you may need oxygen therapy. Many types of lung conditions are treated with oxygen therapy.

This treatment works by pumping oxygen from a portable tank through a tube to a mask worn over your nose or mouth. Or, oxygen travels through smaller tubes placed in the nostrils. There are larger, non-portable oxygen tanks for home or hospital use. The goal is to increase the amount of oxygen you inhale.

People with a restrictive lung disease, such as idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF), can benefit from oxygen therapy. Your doctor may determine how much oxygen therapy you need based on your condition and activity level.

Symptoms of low blood oxygen include fatigue, shortness of breath, and confusion. If you’re experiencing these symptoms, tell your doctor immediately. You may notice a big improvement once you start oxygen therapy.

Pulmonary rehabilitation

Pulmonary rehabilitation can treat restrictive lung disease and other lung-related health problems. It’s usually an outpatient program. The program will teach you more about your condition, safe and effective exercise options, breathing techniques, nutrition, and how to conserve your energy. These programs also help you deal with the emotional side of having a lung disease. Ask your doctor whether you would be a good candidate for pulmonary rehab.

Lung transplant

In the most serious restrictive lung disease cases, it may be necessary to have a lung transplant. Your doctor will only recommend this kind of major surgery if medications and other treatments aren’t effective. Usually new lungs come from an organ donor who has recently died. You may receive one lung, both lungs, or lungs and a donor heart.

Any type of organ transplant has risks. It’s possible the body could reject the new lung or lungs. This can lead to serious health complications, which is why organ recipients receive immunosuppressant drugs.

Other treatments

Sometimes the cause of your restrictive lung disease is unrelated to inflammation or scarring of your lungs and airways. You may, for example, have a condition called pleural effusion, which is a buildup of fluid in the lungs. One of the causes of pleural effusion is a lung infection that can be treated with antibiotics. Once the infection clears, the effusion and difficult breathing symptoms go away.

Obesity hypoventilation syndrome can also restrict breathing. It usually occurs in people who are morbidly obese. Too much fatty tissue surrounding the chest muscles makes it hard for the lungs to work properly. Treatment for this condition focuses on significant weight loss.

Restrictive vs. obstructive lung diseases

You may be familiar with a common, but serious lung problem known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Instead of making it difficult to breathe in, obstructive lung disease makes it difficult to exhale all the air that’s in your lungs. In a way, obstructive and restrictive lung diseases are opposites.

There are four main categories of restrictive lung disease:

  • pulmonary: relates to the health and functioning of the lungs
  • thoracoskeletal: relates to the bones that make up the ribs and the sternum (breastbone)
  • neurologic/neuromuscular: relates to the nervous system, including how the nerves affect muscle function
  • abdominal: relates to organs, such as the diaphragm, and other parts that make up your midsection

Some medications, such as corticosteroids and expectorants, are used for both obstructive and restrictive lung diseases. People with either condition can use oxygen therapy.

Outlook

Most restrictive lung diseases are chronic, which means you will need treatment for the rest of your life. The type of treatment may change as your condition changes. If you maintain a healthy lifestyle and follow through with your medications and other therapies as directed by your doctor, you may be able to live a long life.

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