Clinician Article

Pulmonary rehabilitation following exacerbations of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

  • Puhan MA
  • Gimeno-Santos E
  • Cates CJ
  • Troosters T
Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2016 Dec 8;12:CD005305. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD005305.pub4. (Review)
PMID: 27930803
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  • Internal Medicine
    Relevance - 6/7
    Newsworthiness - 5/7
  • Respirology/Pulmonology
    Relevance - 6/7
    Newsworthiness - 4/7
  • Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation
    Relevance - 5/7
    Newsworthiness - 5/7


BACKGROUND: Guidelines have provided positive recommendations for pulmonary rehabilitation after exacerbations of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), but recent studies indicate that postexacerbation rehabilitation may not always be effective in patients with unstable COPD.

OBJECTIVES: To assess effects of pulmonary rehabilitation after COPD exacerbations on hospital admissions (primary outcome) and other patient-important outcomes (mortality, health-related quality of life (HRQL) and exercise capacity).

SEARCH METHODS: We identified studies through searches of the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL), MEDLINE, Embase, PEDro (Physiotherapy Evidence Database) and the Cochrane Airways Review Group Register of Trials. Searches were current as of 20 October 2015, and handsearches were run up to 5 April 2016.

SELECTION CRITERIA: Randomised controlled trials (RCTs) comparing pulmonary rehabilitation of any duration after exacerbation of COPD versus conventional care. Pulmonary rehabilitation programmes had to include at least physical exercise (endurance or strength exercise, or both). We did not apply a criterion for the minimum number of exercise sessions a rehabilitation programme had to offer to be included in the review. Control groups received conventional community care without rehabilitation.

DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS: We expected substantial heterogeneity across trials in terms of how extensive rehabilitation programmes were (i.e. in terms of number of completed exercise sessions; type, intensity and supervision of exercise training; and patient education), duration of follow-up (< 3 months vs = 3 months) and risk of bias (generation of random sequence, concealment of random allocation and blinding); therefore, we performed subgroup analyses that were defined before we carried them out. We used standard methods expected by Cochrane in preparing this update, and we used GRADE for assessing the quality of evidence.

MAIN RESULTS: For this update, we added 11 studies and included a total of 20 studies (1477 participants). Rehabilitation programmes showed great diversity in terms of exercise training (number of completed exercise sessions; type, intensity and supervision), patient education (from none to extensive self-management programmes) and how they were organised (within one setting, e.g. pulmonary rehabilitation, to across several settings, e.g. hospital, outpatient centre and home). In eight studies, participants completed extensive pulmonary rehabilitation, and in 12 studies, participants completed pulmonary rehabilitation ranging from not extensive to moderately extensive.Eight studies involving 810 participants contributed data on hospital readmissions. Moderate-quality evidence indicates that pulmonary rehabilitation reduced hospital readmissions (pooled odds ratio (OR) 0.44, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.21 to 0.91), but results were heterogenous (I2 = 77%). Extensiveness of rehabilitation programmes and risk of bias may offer an explanation for the heterogeneity, but subgroup analyses were not statistically significant (P values for subgroup effects were between 0.07 and 0.11). Six studies including 670 participants contributed data on mortality. The quality of evidence was low, and the meta-analysis did not show a statistically significant effect of rehabilitation on mortality (pooled OR 0.68, 95% CI 0.28 to 1.67). Again, results were heterogenous (I2 = 59%). Subgroup analyses showed statistically significant differences in subgroup effects between trials with more and less extensive rehabilitation programmes and between trials at low and high risk for bias, indicating possible explanations for the heterogeneity. Hospital readmissions and mortality studies newly included in this update showed, on average, significantly smaller effects of rehabilitation than were seen in earlier studies.High-quality evidence suggests that pulmonary rehabilitation after an exacerbation improves health-related quality of life. The eight studies that used St George's Respiratory Questionnaire (SGRQ) reported a statistically significant effect on SGRQ total score, which was above the minimal important difference (MID) of four points (mean difference (MD) -7.80, 95% CI -12.12 to -3.47; I2 = 64%). Investigators also noted statistically significant and important effects (greater than MID) for the impact and activities domains of the SGRQ. Effects were not statistically significant for the SGRQ symptoms domain. Again, all of these analyses showed heterogeneity, but most studies showed positive effects of pulmonary rehabilitation, some studies showed large effects and others smaller but statistically significant effects. Trials at high risk of bias because of lack of concealment of random allocation showed statistically significantly larger effects on the SGRQ than trials at low risk of bias. High-quality evidence shows that six-minute walk distance (6MWD) improved, on average, by 62 meters (95% CI 38 to 86; I2 = 87%). Heterogeneity was driven particularly by differences between studies showing very large effects and studies showing smaller but statistically significant effects. For both health-related quality of life and exercise capacity, studies newly included in this update showed, on average, smaller effects of rehabilitation than were seen in earlier studies, but the overall results of this review have not changed to an important extent compared with results reported in the earlier version of this review.Five studies involving 278 participants explicitly recorded adverse events, four studies reported no adverse events during rehabilitation programmes and one study reported one serious event.

AUTHORS' CONCLUSIONS: Overall, evidence of high quality shows moderate to large effects of rehabilitation on health-related quality of life and exercise capacity in patients with COPD after an exacerbation. Some recent studies showed no benefit of rehabilitation on hospital readmissions and mortality and introduced heterogeneity as compared with the last update of this review. Such heterogeneity of effects on hospital readmissions and mortality may be explained to some extent by the extensiveness of rehabilitation programmes and by the methodological quality of the included studies. Future researchers must investigate how the extent of rehabilitation programmes in terms of exercise sessions, self-management education and other components affects the outcomes, and how the organisation of such programmes within specific healthcare systems determines their effects after COPD exacerbations on hospital readmissions and mortality.

Clinical Comments


An excellent review of the role (and expectations of) pulmonary rehab after AECOPD. In most areas, pulmonary rehab is likely underused (and underfunded) so hopefully this article pushes pulmonary rehab into routine practice for the tangible benefits it clearly has on patient's lives (particularly the well-demonstrated improvements in QOL and exercise capacity).


Highly relevant article that may offset current believes regarding pulmonary rehab in the pulmonologist community.

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