Pulmonary Rehabilitation

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: September 2023

Pulmonary rehabilitation is the name given to a variety of services that aim to improve the lung functioning of people with chronic lung disease. Pulmonary rehabilitation is used to help patients with lung cancer, as well as patients who have other lung diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, and cystic fibrosis.

What is pulmonary rehabilitation?

Pulmonary rehabilitation is a multidisciplinary approach, and patients may receive care from a team of health care professionals, including a physician, occupational therapist, physical therapist, rehabilitation nurse, social worker, respiratory therapist, vocational counselor, and psychologist. The goals of pulmonary rehabilitation are to decrease disability, increase participation in physical and social activities, and improve overall quality of life.1

Components of pulmonary rehabiliation

Pulmonary rehabilitation does not replace other treatment for lung cancer, such as surgery, radiation therapy, or chemotherapy. It is used concurrently with medical treatment and may include:

Exercise training

Exercise can improve endurance and muscle strength, as well as reducing the severity of fatigue.2,3

Nutritional counseling

Lung cancer patients often experience weight loss and malnutrition, which affect muscle mass and reduce the ability of the muscles used for breathing. Nutritional counseling assesses the patient’s intake and imbalances, and provides recommendations for supplementation to avoid weight loss and muscle wasting.2,3

Patient and family education

Pulmonary rehabilitation includes teaching patients and family members about lung cancer, the importance of quitting smoking, and other ways to reduce activities or exposures that may worsen symptoms.2

Energy-conserving techniques

Patients are taught ways to conserve their energy to prevent shortness of breath. Techniques may include ways to avoid reaching, lifting or bending, as well as finding healthy ways to manage stress.2

Breathing strategies

Breathing strategies or exercises provide patients with ways to improve their breathing by potentially decreasing the frequency and increasing the length or depth of their inhalation and exhalation.2


Many patients with lung cancer experience depression and anxiety, and the stress of having lung cancer can also negatively impact family relationships and finances. Counseling can provide emotional support and teach healthy ways to manage stress.2,3

Pulmonary rehabilitation in lung cancer

Patients with lung cancer can experience a decrease in their lung function due to the cancer as well as from the treatments they receive. Surgery to remove the cancer includes removing a portion of healthy tissue around the tumor to ensure all the cancerous cells are removed, reducing the lung tissue and its ability to function fully. Radiation therapy or radiofrequency ablation eliminates the cancer cells and can also damage nearby healthy lung tissue.

In addition, some patients with lung cancer also have comorbidities (other health conditions), which may further impair their lung capacity. Pulmonary rehabilitation can benefit lung cancer patients by:2,4

  • Improving lung functioning
  • Increasing capacity for exercise
  • Decreasing the symptoms of lung cancer, such as difficulty breathing (dyspnea)
  • Improve quality of life
  • Help manage anxiety and depression

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