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Lungs are the essential organs of respiration, allowing the body to take in oxygen and eliminate carbon dioxide. Oxygen is delivered to the chest through the trachea (windpipe) and bronchial tubes in the lungs, which are composed of three lobes on the right and two lobes on the left. The lobes are composed of smaller units, segments, which are in turn further composed of millions of elastic, air sacs (alveoli). It is at the level of the alveolus that the gas exchange of carbon dioxide for oxygen takes place. Blood vessels (pulmonary arteries and veins) cast off carbon dioxide and absorb oxygen. The carbon dioxide is then expelled via the airways as oxygen is propelled by the heart to the distant parts of the body. At any stage of this process, diseases that afflict the lungs may occur.

diagram of the lungs 

Emphysema or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) affects a person’s ability to breathe because the tissue necessary to support lung function is damaged. Emphysema is the fifth leading cause of death in the United States and is usually associated with a long history of smoking, but is sometimes due to genetic or environmental factors.

As the disease progresses the functional unit of the lung becomes more diseased and the surface area for gas exchange is reduced making the lungs less efficient and therefore making the patient more and more short of breath.

In addition, excessive mucus production occurs in the major airways, making it more difficult to move air in and out of the lungs. Over time, excessive mucus production, as well as inflammation, infection, and the smoke products themselves lead to damage of the air sacs where oxygen and carbon dioxide is exchanged.

Because emphysema develops slowly over time, people may not notice immediate symptoms which can include a persistent cough, a decrease in tolerance for exercise and more and more difficulty breathing. Often, it is the persistent cough that sends people to their doctor’s office.

To determine if you have emphysema, your physician will perform a physical examination and will also order a series of tests which may include a chest x-ray, pulmonary function tests and blood work. If you are diagnosed with emphysema, there are a number of medical treatments including medications to dilate the bronchus, anti-inflammatory medications, antibiotics and or oxygen.

For patients who are not experiencing relief from medication, surgery can be an option. There are two types of surgery to treat emphysema, lung volume reduction surgery and lung transplantation.

Lung Volume Reduction Surgery

Lung volume reduction surgery (LVRS) offers hope for some patients with emphysema. Because emphysematous lungs are overinflated, the chest wall and diaphragm cannot function properly because they are moved out of place to accommodate the distended lungs.

LVRS improves a person’s respiratory system by removing the most destroyed part of the lungs, which is usually 20-30% of each lung and usually at the apex of the lungs. After such surgery, the chest wall and diaphragm return to their normal location and the he lung tissue functions more effectively.

Lung Transplantation

Lung transplantation is another surgical option for patients with advanced emphysema. While not all patients are candidates for transplant, those who are will be nearly cured from the disease because the diseased lungs are removed and new ones take over the breathing function for the body. To read more about lung transplantation, click here.

With locations througout northern Virginia, CVTSA proudly serves patients throughout Virginia, Maryland and Washington, DC.


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