How the Lungs Work

How the Lungs Work

We’re passionate about giving comfort to those who have trouble breathing. Most of you may know that Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is a debilitating condition that can really restrict one’s quality of life. We recently put together a guide for those diagnosed with or wanting to learn all about COPD. This post is part two of our guide, for the complete guide subscribe to our newsletter and it will be emailed to you automatically. Otherwise you will be able to find a hard copy at your local COPD specialist clinic.



How the Lungs Work

Learning about COPD will be the first and one of the most important steps you take in managing the disease. Knowing how COPD works, which parts of the body it affects and how symptoms can be improved will encourage you to make choices that facilitate good health. But first, in order to understand COPD, it helps to learn a little bit about how the lungs work.


human-lungsThe Respiratory System

The lungs are a part of the respiratory system, the system that brings vital oxygen into your body by breathing in the air around you. With each breath that you take your lungs work effortlessly to draw in oxygen from the air and to rid your body of waste gases, which are disposed of as you breathe out. From the moment you take your first breath until decease this process never stops and is an essential part of life. For the most part, breathing occurs involuntarily and is controlled by the breathing centre of the brain; however, some control over the breath is possible. In past times, a person who could not obtain sufficient oxygen from the air would lead a difficult, and probably short, life. Now, machines called oxygen concentrators help people with chronic respiratory ailments obtain oxygen by delivering highly concentrated oxygen to the patient’s lungs through the mouth or nostrils. Living a full and normal life with a chronic respiratory ailment such as COPD has never been more achievable.


Important Parts of the Lungs

Some common respiratory-related words you will hear while managing COPD are bronchioles, alveoli and capillaries. These are the three most important parts of the lungs in relation to COPD.

Simply put, as you inhale, the air that you breathe in travels down your windpipe into airways called bronchial tubes and then into smaller, tiny tubes. These tiny tubes are the bronchioles. The bronchioles branch into hundreds of tiny air sacs, which are the alveoli. The alveoli are stretchy, and as the air you inhale reaches them they expand like tiny balloons. When you exhale, the alveoli deflate.

bronchiolesIt can help here to imagine an upside-down broccoli – the large parts of the stem are the bronchial tubes, which branch into the thinner stems, the bronchioles, and so the alveoli are the green, leafy, spongy bits at the end of the broccoli. While this analogy might seem childish, getting a good grasp of what your lungs look like is key to learning how they work. When you talk to your doctor about your lungs, or any other ailment for that matter, make sure that everything is explained in terms that you understand. No question is a silly question, and your doctor will likely be more than happy to explain things using different language if need be. It is part of their job, after all.

Now, getting back to the alveoli – the leafy, spongy bits of the broccoli – the walls of the alveoli are lined with tiny blood vessels, called capillaries, which accommodate a gas exchange as oxygen from your breath travels into the blood stream and carbon dioxide is removed from the bloodstream through the capillaries and into the air sacs to be exhaled into the atmosphere. This gas exchange allows your body to take the oxygen you need from the air while getting rid of the waste gas carbon dioxide. Why is this important? Well, as mentioned above, oxygen is vital to the body; you cannot live without it. The role of oxygen in the body is extensive, but suffice it to say for the purposes of this book, that oxygen is used by the cells in your body to produce the energy required for normal body function.


The Circulatory System

Because oxygenated blood is pumped through the body by the circulatory system, the respiratory and circulatory systems have integrated roles in supplying the body with fuel for life. This is where the term pulmonary is useful to know. You will often hear the terms pulmonary artery and pulmonary vein in your COPD journey; these are the arteries and veins that carry blood between the heart and the lungs. In general, pulmonary refers to the lungs, or any condition that might affect the lungs, so that pulmonary rehabilitation is a collection of exercises undertaken by COPD patients in order to rehabilitate damaged lungs.