Emphysema is defined as a chronic, progressive disease affecting the lungs. Emphysema causes the tissues that make up the physical shape and function of the lungs to deteriorate. It is categorized as one of the chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (CPOD). Persons suffering from emphysema experience the destruction of the lung tissues of the alveoli, which are small air sacs in the lungs. When a person with emphysema inhales, the alveoli are unable to fully fill with air, causing decreased lung expansion and shortness of breath. When normal breathing takes place, air inhaled through the mouth is drawn to the bronchi and into the alveoli, which are the tiny sacs surrounded by capillaries. The alveoli absorb oxygen and carry it to the blood.
Emphysema can be broken into primary and secondary classifications called panaciar and centricinar emphysema. Panaciar emphysema occurs when the entire respiratory acinus is expanded. This form is more common in the lower lobes, specifically the basal segments and the anterior margins of the lungs. Centriacinar emphysema occurs when the respiratory bronchiole expands. With this form of emphysema, the alveoli are unchanged. The centriacinar form is usually found in the upper lobes of the lungs.
The most common symptoms of emphysema include shortness of breath on exertion and chest expansion. Persons suffering from the disease are unable to attain the proper amount of oxygen the body needs. They are also unable to release the carbon dioxide from their blood. Shortness of breath not only occurs during physical activity and exertion, but also during relaxation. Rapid breathing to gain oxygen is also a symptom, as well as difficulty coughing and decreased sputum. Patients may also experience weight loss and increased chest diameter referred to as ‘barrel chest.’
Smoking tobacco is the most common cause of emphysema, but it can also be caused by other etiologies, alpha 1-antitrypsin deficiency, old age, air pollution and exposure to hazardous chemicals, and even second hand smoke.
Emphysema is typically diagnosed with a pulmonary function test. After diagnosis, doctors administer the proper treatment. Treatment for emphysema includes: anticholinergenics, bronchodilators, steroid medication, effective body positioning and supplemental oxygen as needed.
Supplemental oxygen provides a non-surgical treatment for patients. Patients usually require 20+ hours of supplemental oxygen a day. This treatment has been shown to prolong life without the need of intensive medications or surgery.
When surgery is needed, doctors perform lung volume reduction surgery (LVRS). There are several methods for performing LVRS. The most common method involved placing tiny valves in passages leading to the diseased areas of the lungs. The only true ‘cure’ for emphysema is lung transplant, though few patients are physically strong enough to survive the procedure.
The best and most effective way to avoid emphysema is to live a healthy lifestyle and to avoid tobacco smoke and other carcinogens that can damage the lungs.