Surgery for COPD

Not everyone is a candidate for lung surgery, but it may be an option if you have severe COPD or emphysema.

The two more common types of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are emphysema and chronic bronchitis.  As COPD advances or gets worse, some people have severe symptoms and a harder time breathing all the time. If medicine and other treatment options are no longer working to relieve symptoms and prevent exacerbations, in some people living with COPD, healthcare providers may suggest lung surgery.

Are You a Candidate for Lung Surgery?

You may be a candidate for lung surgery if:

  • You are strong enough to go through the surgery and recovery. Your healthcare provider will also review your weight, age, results of medical tests and other medical conditions. 
  • You participate in a pulmonary rehabilitation program.
  • You cannot smoke.

If you are considered as a candidate for a surgical procedure, your provider will order and review the results of several medical tests. These tests may include blood tests, chest CT scan, X-ray, and pulmonary function tests. After surgery, some people with COPD will experience fewer or less severe symptoms and be more active. As with all surgeries, there may be a risk for complications or additional health problems after the surgery. If lung surgery is an option for you, your healthcare provider will discuss the risks and benefits.

Types of Lung Surgery

There are two types of lung surgery for COPD:

  • Bullectomy is a surgery where your healthcare provider will remove one or more of the very large bullae or blebs from the lungs. Bullae are large, damaged air sacs that form from hundreds of destroyed alveoli or air sacs. These damaged air sacs can become so large that they expand and stop the air from moving in and out of the lungs. This surgery is rare because most people do not have a large enough bullae to be considered for this operation. However, for people who have a bullectomy, removing the destroyed air sacs may improve breathing.
  • Lung Volume Reduction Surgery (LVRS) is a surgery to help people with severe emphysema affecting the upper lung lobes. LVRS is not a cure for COPD but may improve your exercise capacity and quality of life. The goal of the surgery is to remove about 30 percent of the most diseased lung tissue. While this will reduce the size of the lungs, it will allow the remaining healthier part of the lungs to work better. LVRS also can help the diaphragm to return to its normal shape, allowing you to breathe more efficiently. The surgery has been shown to help improve breathing ability, lung capacity and overall quality of life among those who qualify for it.

Lung Transplants

Sometimes COPD can cause severe damage to the lungs, causing them not to function normally. Your healthcare provider may consider you for a lung transplant if the lung damage cannot be repaired, if you had three or more severe exacerbations within the last year, or you are not a candidate for LVRS. Lung transplants can improve your ability to breathe and be active. However, like any major operation, you should consider the risks and complications, such as organ rejection or needing to take immune-suppressing medications daily. 

Talk to your healthcare provider or the trained staff at our Lung Helpline to find out more information about how and where to receive a lung transplant evaluation or the process for becoming an organ donor.

For more information about issues related to LVRS and lung transplants, call our Lung HelpLine at 1-800-LUNGUSA (1-800-586-4872).

Reviewed and approved by the American Lung Association Scientific and Medical Editorial Review Panel.

Page last updated: March 27, 2023

Freedom From Smoking Clinic
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Freedom From Smoking Clinic
Detroit, MI | May 29, 2024