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What Is Respiratory Physiotherapy?

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  • Written By: Jillian O Keeffe
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 24 November 2016
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Respiratory physiotherapy is a field of medicine that applies physical movement as a treatment for breathing problems. Examples of the techniques used in respiratory physiotherapy include alterations in posture, coughing methods and placing pressure on the chest to help improve quality of breathing. Physiotherapists may also use tools such as suction catheters or oxygen pumps to complement physiotherapy techniques.

Medical problems such as emphysema, pneumonia and asthma can make it hard for patients to breathe properly. A respiratory physiotherapy regime can help improve the person's ability to breathe without having to take drugs. Doctors may also be able to prescribe medications to complement the respiratory physiotherapy if necessary, as a respiratory physiotherapist generally tends to have a physiotherapy qualification and not a medical qualification. Various different causes can produce a breathing problem, including such issues as excess mucus in the lungs, an inability to clear a normal amount of mucus, or an infection. Conditions like asthma cause constriction of the airways without other changes to the lungs in a temporary manner, but these types of disease may also benefit from respiratory physiotherapy.

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Positioning of the body is important in this type of physiotherapy. This is partially because the lungs can become compressed when the patient is in certain positions like lying down flat, so sitting up straight can relieve the pressure and allow more air into the lungs. Certain postures can help to alleviate other issues, such as excess sputum, which may drain out of the airway through positions like placing the patient's head lower than the rest of the body. Percussion or shaking of the chest may also be used by a physiotherapist to help loosen mucus in the airways. Patients may also be taught to breathe in a certain manner, or expel air in a certain manner; for example, repeated coughing alters the pressure of the air inside the lungs, which can help remove mucus and clear the airways.

As well as these physical techniques, a physiotherapist has access to specific medical equipment to help the patient breathe more efficiently. Oxygen masks are one example, and some types of oxygen delivery devices are also designed to deliver gas in such a way as to clear the airways. Some devices are not attached to oxygen tanks, but rather are external tools for the patient to breathe through which alter the way in which oxygen enters the lungs. To physically remove mucus from the lungs, some patients may require tools like suction catheters, which pump the mucus out of the body. Respiratory physiotherapy may be used to alleviate breathing problems for short-term medical conditions, or it may be used to improve breathing in people who suffer from chronic conditions.

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