Emphysema is a progressive, incurable chronic lung condition. The air sacs (alveoli) are destroyed and oxygen uptake is restricted due to the loss of elasticity of lung tissue.


As of 1998 there were an estimated two million people suffering from emphysema in America. Between three and five percent were attributed to genetic factors, the remainder being a result of environmental pollution, with smoking ranking far and away as the main cause.

Normally functioning lungs are elastic, and efficiently expand and recoil as air passes freely through their passageways (bronchus) to the alveoli, where oxygen is moved into the blood and carbon dioxide is filtered out. When a person inhales cigarette smoke or airborne pollutants, his or her immune system responds by releasing substances that are meant to defend the lungs against the smoke. These substances can also attack the cells of the lungs, but the body normally inhibits such action with the release of other substances.

When individuals are exposed to pollution over a long period of time the lung tissue is damaged in such a way that it loses its elasticity. When damage has occurred to the alveoli, sufferers have difficulty making a complete exhalation, which causes residual volume—air trapped inside the lungs. With the passage of time, this causes the chest to permanently expand and become barrel shaped. As the disease progresses, increasingly more effort is needed to breathe. Emphysema frequently occurs with one or more other respiratory diseases, such as bronchitis and asthma. It is one of the diseases that are collectively referred to as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). As a cause of death, it ranks fourth after heart disease, cancer and stroke.

Causes & symptoms

People who smoke or live in polluted atmospheres are possible candidates for emphysema. People with a genetic defect (alpha 1-antitrypsin deficiency) are also at risk. The early stages of emphysema may go undiagnosed, but the main symptoms are breathlessness, blueness of the lips and fingernails, and exhaustion. Sufferers of chronic bronchitis and asthma are also at risk. People who develop emphysema as a result of their work often develop asthma prior to symptoms of their condition.

Emphysema is traditionally a disease suffered by miners, particularly coal miners, as the fine dust that results from mining attacks the alveoli over a period of time. Most miners suffer from emphysema to some degree after a lifetime "down in the pit." In fact, emphysema is sometimes referred to as miner's lung or black lung.

The situation has somewhat improved in recent years due to awareness of the causes of emphysema and improved work conditions for many workers. Others who may be at risk for emphysema include sand blasters, metal grinders, anyone whose job exposes him or her to silica (silicosis), asbestos (asbestososis), or iron filings (siderosis). In addition, dust from wood, cotton, talc, cereal grains coffee, pesticides, drug or enzyme powders, or fiberglass may cause emphysema. People who use their lungs in their work are also susceptible (such as trumpet players and glass blowers). Any worker who is exposed to abnormal levels of dust, fumes, smoke, gases, vapors, or mists over a long period of time may be at risk for emphysema.

Sufferers typically complain that they "can't get enough air" as stale air builds up inside the lungs and the patient becomes starved of oxygen. Coughing, wheezing, and chronic mucous production are other common symptoms.


A diagnosis of emphysema will not be made on the basis of the above symptoms alone. A detailed medical history will be taken along with x rays and pathology examinations. Peak flow tests will also be conducted.


Damage to the lungs as a result of emphysema cannot be reversed, so preventative measures to limit its progression

Cross section of a smoker's lung affected by emphysema. (Photograph by Dr. E. Walker. Science Photo Library/Photo Researchers, Inc. Reproduced by permission.)

are essential. The following measures and treatments are regarded as beneficial for emphysema sufferers.


Herbs can be beneficial in relieving the symptoms of emphysema, helping the body to ward off infection, and easing the asthmatic symptoms that often accompany emphysema.

Some of them are:

  • Lobelia: This is a mild sedative, also having strong expectorant properties. It is widely used for chest complaints, including emphysema and bronchitis, and can help to cut an asthma attack short.
  • Thyme: A tea made with thyme is recommended for overcoming shortness of breath. It is also a powerful antiseptic.
  • Mullein: This is another traditional remedy for chest complaints. Boil two tablespoons of the dried leaves with a glass of milk and drink.
  • Echinacea: Echinacea is a powerful immune system stimulant and will strengthen the body in general, warding off colds and infections.
  • Lungwort: A member of the borage family, this herb is very healing for the lungs. It should be taken as an infusion.
  • Black cohosh: This herb is an expectorant and astringent. It relieves coughing.
  • Sage: This is one of the most useful of all herbs and is said to be good for whatever it is taken for. It is antiviral and bactericidal.
  • Garlic: A very powerful anti-viral, garlic can be of real help to those trying to avoid infections and lung congestion.

Chinese herbal medicine

Qing Qi Hua Tan Wan (Pinellia expectorant pills) are the Chinese herbalists' treatment for chronic lung complaints, particularly bronchitis and asthma.

Juices for emphysema

Herbalist Kitty Campion recommends the following juices for the treatment of emphysema: equal parts of carrot juice, parsnip juice, watercress juice and potato juice, or equal parts of orange juice and lemon juice, diluted half and half with a strong decoction of rosehip tea.


Aromatherapy involves massaging the patient with potent plant essential oils, which have been proven to enter the circulation through the skin. The constituents of the oils can have a powerful effect on a variety of illnesses, but since their beneficial qualities are also transported through the air, they are considered to be doubly beneficial to those who suffer from respiratory ailments.

Aromatherapy oils for respiratory disease:

  • Canada balsam may alleviate respiratory symptoms and is an expectorant. It is also a bactericide and recommended for those suffering from chronic chest ailments.
  • Tolu balsam is an excellent treatment for chest infections.
  • Frankincense is good for infection and catarrhal discharge.
  • Niaouli is a very strong antiseptic and beneficial for pulmonary trouble.
  • Rose damascena is recommended for bronchial complaints, and also uplifts the spirits.
  • Tea tree oil was recently discovered to be one of the most potent anti-viral, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal agents known to medicine. Therefore highly beneficial as a preventative measure against chest infection.


This ancient Chinese system of holistic treatment works on the principal that illness is the result of blockage in the flow of life force. The practitioner aims to stimulate relevant meridians in the body, and so release trapped life force, returning bodily functions to normal. The treatment is virtually painless.

Treatment can be expected to improve blood circulation and the capacity of the body to restore itself. Research has indicated that acupuncture can produce changes in the electrical fields of body cells, promoting a return to the body's normal state. Consequently, few negative side effects are associated with acupuncture treatment.

Breathing techniques

Very few people actually breathe correctly, and if lung function is not up to par, the difference between breathing fully and taking shallow ineffective, breaths can make a remarkable difference in the way a person feels and the way his or her body functions. Oxygen shortage in the body promotes disease, and ensuring that oxygen levels are kept up can avert disaster, even with the existence of lung-impairment. Improved breathing techniques can rid the body of free radicals, neutralize environmental toxins, and destroy many harmful microbes that cannot exist in an oxygen-rich environment. Without sufficient oxygen, the body cannot fully utilize nutrients from food, and bodily functions generally become less efficient. Every effort must be made to promote proper breathing, in order to offset the effects of reduced lung function.

In cases of emphysema, it is particularly important to ensure that the out-breath expels all of the previous inbreath. When exhalation is incomplete, wastes produced by breathing are not expelled from the body in the normal way, and residual volume, which is a common occurrence with progressive emphysema, may cause chest enlargement.


Homeopathy is the treatment of illness according to a system of "like cures like" that stimulates the body to heal itself. While it could definitely contribute to the successful treatment of emphysema, Homeopathy requires a qualified practitioner, as the patient's condition must be accurately assessed in order that the correct remedy be prescribed. Even for the same disorder, no two patients will receive the same treatment.


For lung dysfunction of any kind, it is vital to take steps to ensure that a person's lifestyle is not contributing to the problem. Pollution must be avoided at all costs, and steps should be taken to ensure that the living environment is free of chemical irritants. This may involve avoiding fragrances, as they can overburden damaged lungs. Some unscented products use a masking fragrance which only increases toxicity. Common household products, such as fabric softeners, bleach, scented detergents, and furniture polish, can harm the body and the environment.

It must be noted that pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, and fertilizers are all neurotoxins, (poisonous to the nervous system). Natural alternatives are obtainable for most household cleaning products. Personal care products can also cause damage, so only natural sources should be used. Chlorinated pools should be avoided.

Every effort should be made to obtain food that is organically grown, in order to avoid pesticides and chemicals. Processed foods should be avoided because they often contain chemicals, dyes, and preservatives, and because the food is stripped of most of its nutritional value. Notably, artificial sweeteners, particularly aspartame, break down into deadly poisons in the body.

Clothing should be all natural fibers, as permanent press and wrinkle-resistant clothes have often been treated with formaldehyde which does not wash out. For the same reasons, synthetic fiber bed coverings should also be avoided. All plastic products should be avoided as far as possible as they all have toxic elements. Windows should be open as often as possible to increase oxygen in the atmosphere. Some houseplants should be acquired, as they give off oxygen.

It is also very important to undertake some form of gentle, regular exercise as this can do much to improve symptoms. Suitable forms of exercise may be swimming, walking and gentle rebounding. If an emphysema patient is very weak, he or she could sit on a mini-trampoline while a helper does the strenuous bit; very real benefits will still be obtained in this way. Strenuous activities are not suitable for anyone with lung impairment.


According to the principles of naturopathy, the body has the power to heal itself. Treatment should focus on providing the system with optimum nutrition so it can carry out all repairs necessary. This involves ensuring that all food that is eaten is of the highest quality.

Naturopaths advocate dietary supplements to assist with this process, and certain dietary supplements can be very valuable in arresting the progress of Emphysema. Trials have been conducted involving treating emphysema patients with vitamin A, which is known to play an important role in healthy body tissue. Vitamin E can also be helpful, and vitamin C should always be taken, as it is a catalyst for other nutrients. For best results, it is advised to consult a practitioner.

Allopathic treatment

Prior to any other treatment, it is essential that emphysema sufferers who smoke take steps to give up the habit. Otherwise, damage to the lungs will continue to go unchecked and other measures will be very limited in their success. Apart from lifestyle changes, physicians generally recommend avoidance of infection, and antibiotics may be prescribed as a preventative measure.

A physician may also prescribe bronchodilator medicines, which are usually prescribed for asthma patients, if there is any obstruction of the airways. For the same reason, anti-inflammatories may also be prescribed.

Chest physiotherapy, breathing exercises, and a program of physical exercise (collectively referred to as pulmonary rehabilitation) are considered beneficial to all emphysema patients, regardless of the degree of impairment. Supplementary oxygen may be required at some stage.

In extreme cases, lung volume reduction surgery may be recommended. If successful, this can eliminate the need for supplemental oxygen and improves breathing function. In this procedure, the damaged parts of the lung are removed in order to allow healthy lung tissue to expand. Careful evaluation of patients is carried out prior to this procedure. A final resort is lung transplant surgery. Because of the relatively large risk involved, this is carried out in only a small minority of patients.

Expected results

It is generally accepted that emphysema is incurable. Physicians and alternative medicine practitioners assert that they can relieve sufferers greatly from symptoms and halt the progress of the disease with appropriate management and preventative measures.


Any person who feels that his/her work conditions are likely to be a possible cause of emphysema should take steps to protect him/herself. A respirator should be worn, at least until work conditions can be improved. Several steps may be taken to improve conditions, primary of which should be to improve ventilation.

Early diagnosis is vital to the successful management of emphysema. If preventative and therapeutic measures are taken at the early onset of symptoms, damage can be restricted and the outlook can be positive. At all times, care should be taken to eliminate sources of pollution or chemical irritants from the environment, both in the home and elsewhere. The first step in overcoming emphysema for any patient should be to remove the cause, whether working conditions, polluted atmosphere or smoking.



Ryman, Daniele. Aromatherapy London: Piatkus Books, 1999.

Treacher, Sylvia. Practical Homeopathy UK: Parragon Books, 2000.


The National Emphysema Foundation <http://emphysemafoundation.org/>


"Progress in Emphysema Research. <"http://www.lrri.org/gobmasso.html> (January 17, 2001).

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