Clinical Research Office. A partnership between Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and the University of Sheffield

Research shows benefits of exercise for patients with incurable lung condition

Research carried out by a hospital physiotherapist has demonstrated that exercise and physiotherapy rehabilitation can improve quality of life for people with an incurable lung disease.

Carol Keen, a practising physiotherapist at Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, has shown through her research that for approximately 90% of Pulmonary Hypertension (PH) patients there are ways to make them fitter and stronger through physiotherapy.

Carol has undertaken her research while studying for a PhD in physiotherapy at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Her work, supported by the Pulmonary Hypertension Association (PHA UK), contributes to growing evidence that, in contrast to previous advice, moving more can help to improve the quality of life for people with PH.

PH is a rare, incurable disease that affects the arteries in the lungs and damages the right side of the heart. Just 8000 people in the UK have the condition. Its main symptom is breathlessness, which affects people’s ability to carry out basic activities such as walking up stairs. Historically, exercise in people with PH was discouraged due to a fear of pulmonary vascular complications.

However, by applying the findings of research in clinical practice with PH patients Carol has shown that appropriate exercise and physiotherapy can improve the physical and mental wellbeing, with patients able to walk further without getting breathless.

Carol said: “In the past 15 years, research from European studies has shown that it is safe for PH patients to do some form of exercise. I wanted to build on this research and apply it in clinical practice for the first time in the UK.

“We know already that rehabilitation is proving to be highly effective. By the end of my PhD, we should have a clearer understanding of its impact on patients’ lives.”

Patients have spoken of the benefits it has brought. Alison, 55, has both PH and Eisenmenger syndrome. She said: “For over 40 years I’d been told you shouldn’t exercise if you have PH or a heart condition. But Carol explained how things have changed, and that was a big surprise to me. I always used to drive everywhere, because I thought I shouldn’t walk... When I did my last walk test at hospital, I managed 60m further. If it wasn’t for Carol, I would still be thinking I couldn’t exercise, as it’s what I’d been told all my life.”

Julie, 63, was diagnosed with PH in April 2020. She said: “I was in a limbo where I didn’t know what exercises I could do and that was the frightening thing. The support from Carol has been key in lifting my spirits, getting me moving, and helping me to have a better outlook on life. When I didn’t know what to do [in terms of physical activity], I didn’t really feel like I was involved in society. If it hadn’t been for Carol, I’d still be wallowing.”

Carol has also been working with physiotherapists and nurses in community health settings to help educate them on PH and what types of exercises patients can do. Linking up with local services means that patients who don’t live near a specialist PH centre can still access support.