Emphysema (patient information)
Emphysema On the Web
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Emphysema is a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) involving damage to the air sacs (alveoli) in the lungs. As a result, airflow is impeded and your body does not get the oxygen it needs. Emphysema makes it hard to catch your breath. You may also have a chronic cough and have trouble breathing during exercise.
What are the symptoms of Emphysema?
Symptoms include shortness of breath on exertion, and an expanded chest. Signs of emphysema include pursed-lipped breathing and central cyanosis. The chest has hyperresonant percussion notes, particularly just above the liver, and a difficult to palpate apex beat, both due to hyperinflation. There may be decreased breath sounds and audible expiratory wheeze. In advanced disease, there are signs of fluid overload such as pitting peripheral edema. The face has a ruddy complexion if there is a secondary polycythemia. Sufferers who retain carbon dioxide have asterixis (metabolic flap) at the wrist.
What causes Emphysema?
The most common cause is cigarette smoking.
Who is at risk for Emphysema?
Patients with alpha 1-antitrypsin deficiency (A1AD) are more likely to suffer from emphysema. A1AD allows inflammatory enzymes (such as elastase) to destroy the alveolar tissue. Most A1AD patients do not develop clinically significant emphysema, but smoking and severely decreased A1AT levels (10-15%) can cause emphysema at a young age. The type of emphysema caused by A1AD is known as panacinar emphysema (involving the entire acinus) as opposed to centrilobular emphysema, which is caused by smoking. Panacinar emphysema typically affects the lower lungs, while centrilobular emphysema affects the upper lungs. A1AD causes about 2% of all emphysema. Smokers with A1AD are at the greatest risk for emphysema. Mild emphysema can often develop into a severe case over a short period of time (1–2 weeks).
- Chest X-ray
- Chest CT scan
- Pulmonary Function Test (PFT)
When to seek urgent medical care?
Patients who think they may have contracted the disease are recommended to seek medical attention as soon as possible.
The most important measure to slow its progression is for the patient to stop smoking and avoid all exposure to cigarette smoke and lung irritants. Pulmonary rehabilitation can be very helpful to optimize the patient's quality of life and teach the patient how to actively manage his or her care. Patients with emphysema and chronic bronchitis can do more for themselves than patients with any other disabling disease.
Emphysema is also treated by supporting the breathing with anticholinergics, bronchodilators, steroid medication (inhaled or oral), and supplemental oxygen as required. Treating the patient's other conditions including gastric reflux and allergies may improve lung function. Supplemental oxygen used as prescribed (usually more than 20 hours per day) is the only non-surgical treatment which has been shown to prolong life in emphysema patients. There are lightweight portable oxygen systems which allow patients increased mobility. Patients can fly, cruise, and work while using supplemental oxygen. Other medications are being researched, and herbal organic remedies are being offered by companies.
Lung volume reduction surgery (LVRS) can improve the quality of life for certain carefully selected patients. It can be done by different methods, some of which are minimally invasive. In July 2006 a new treatment, placing tiny valves in passages leading to diseased lung areas, was announced to have good results, but 7% of patients suffered partial lung collapse. The only known "cure" for emphysema is lung transplant, but few patients are strong enough physically to survive the surgery. The combination of a patient's age, oxygen deprivation and the side-effects of the medications used to treat emphysema cause damage to the kidneys, heart and other organs. Surgical transplantation also requires the patient to take an anti-rejection drug regimen which suppresses the immune system, and can lead to microbial infection of the patient.
A study published by the European Respiratory Journal suggests that tretinoin (an anti-acne drug commercially available as Retin-A) derived from vitamin A can reverse the effects of emphysema in mice by returning elasticity (and regenerating lung tissue through gene mediation) to the alveoli.
While vitamin A consumption is not known to be an effective treatment or prevention for the disease, this research could in the future lead to a cure. A follow-up study done in 2006 found inconclusive results ("no definitive clinical benefits") using Vitamin A (retinoic acid) in treatment of emphysema in humans and stated that further research is needed to reach conclusions on this treatment.
Where to find medical care for Emphysema?
What to expect (Outlook/Prognosis)?
Emphysema is an irreversible degenerative condition, but its progression can be slowed if the patient adheres to proper treatment methods.
- Mao J, Goldin J, Dermand J, Ibrahim G, Brown M, Emerick A, McNitt-Gray M, Gjertson D, Estrada F, Tashkin D, Roth M (1 March 2002). "A pilot study of all-trans-retinoic acid for the treatment of human emphysema". Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 165 (5): 718–23. PMID 11874821.
- "Vitamin may cure smoking disease". BBC News. December 22, 2003. Retrieved 2006-11-18.
- Roth M, Connett J, D'Armiento J, Foronjy R, Friedman P, Goldin J, Louis T, Mao J, Muindi J, O'Connor G, Ramsdell J, Ries A, Scharf S, Schluger N, Sciurba F, Skeans M, Walter R, Wendt C, Wise R (2006). "Feasibility of retinoids for the treatment of emphysema study". Chest. 130 (5): 1334–45. doi:10.1378/chest.130.5.1334. PMID 17099008.