The tripod position involves sitting and leaning forward with the arms resting on the knees. It may help reduce breathlessness and the fear that can come with it in people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Although there is no cure for COPD, various treatments are available. However, people with the condition may experience flare-ups, known as exacerbations, during which their symptoms worsen. When a person adopts the tripod position, the resulting changes in their body positioning should make it easier to breathe.

Keep reading to learn more about the tripod position, including how to assume it, how it helps improve breathlessness, and what else people with COPD can do to manage their symptoms.

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The tripod position is a technique that a person can use if they are experiencing respiratory distress or dyspnea. Dyspnea is the medical term for shortness of breath.

It can be a helpful coping strategy for people with COPD and other respiratory conditions. In fact, individuals who are short of breath often instinctively adopt this position as a way of getting more air into their lungs.

People can get into the tripod position by following these steps:

  1. Sit down and lean forward with the arms resting on the knees. Alternatively, stand with the arms resting on a tabletop or the back of a chair.
  2. While leaning forward at an angle of about 45 degrees, focus on the movement of air, following it as it enters and exits the abdomen.
  3. Maintain this position until shortness of breath improves.

Body positioning may help people with COPD cope with dyspnea.

The tripod position results in some changes in the body, which allow a person to breathe air in and out more easily. These changes include:

  • reduced recruitment of certain neck muscles, called the sternocleidomastoid and scalene muscles
  • restoration of the diaphragm‘s natural shape
  • improvement of diaphragm function
  • lifting of the shoulder girdle
  • improvement of the length-tension relationship in respiratory muscles

People with COPD can develop a condition called hyperinflation. Hyperinflation refers to a blockage in air passages or a loss of elasticity in the lung’s air sacs that can make it difficult for the body to expel air from the lungs.

Hyperinflation can have a negative effect on the diaphragm, an important muscle involved in air inhalation. The tripod position helps the diaphragm move downward to increase the volume in the chest cavity, known as the thoracic cavity. This increased volume might force the lungs to expand. People adopting the tripod position will be able to increase the expulsion of carbon dioxide and the inhalation of oxygen.

Improving the length-tension relationship of respiratory muscles can also be beneficial. The length-tension relationship refers to the amount of force that the muscle produces in relation to its length. For example, the output can increase when the muscle operates at a greater length.

Research looking into the effect of different positions on abdominal muscle activity found that the tripod position and kneeling on all fours activated the abdominal muscles more than lying down. Both positions led to improved breathing.

Additionally, a 2021 case study found that assuming the tripod position avoided the need for intubation in a 77-year-old male with COVID-19-associated pneumonia.

COPD is a chronic and progressive lung disease that causes inflammation and damage to the lungs and airways, leading to airflow blockages. As a result of these effects, people with COPD experience problems with breathing.

COPD is the third leading cause of death by disease in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 16 million people in the U.S. have a diagnosis of COPD, and the condition likely goes undiagnosed in millions more people.

COPD has various risk factors, which include:

  • Smoking: Smoking is responsible for about 85–90% of COPD cases in the U.S. Secondhand smoke can also increase a person’s risk of developing the condition.
  • Inhaling harmful fumes and dust particles at work: These include grain and flour dust, silica dust, welding fumes, and coal dust.
  • Becoming exposed to air pollution: Long-term exposure to harmful levels of air pollution can increase the risk of COPD.
  • Having alpha-1 deficiency: This genetic condition affects the body’s ability to produce a protein that protects the lungs.

The symptoms of COPD include:

Learn more about COPD.

COPD is a chronic condition, which means that there is no cure. People may experience exacerbations of the condition.

However, lifestyle adjustments and medical treatment can help slow the progression of the disease or alleviate the frequency and severity of symptoms. The options include:

  • stopping smoking and avoiding secondhand smoke and other harmful air pollutants
  • using inhalers and oral medications, such as corticosteroids and antibiotics, to improve breathing and reduce the risk of chest infections occurring
  • undergoing pulmonary rehabilitation, which is a program of education and counseling around exercise, diet, and other lifestyle changes
  • using supplementary oxygen via nasal prongs or a face mask
  • getting vaccinations against influenza, pneumonia, and COVID-19
  • undergoing surgery if severe COPD symptoms are making it hard to breathe normally
  • receiving palliative care, which can help treat the symptoms of COPD and any associated stress

It is possible to have a good quality of life with COPD by implementing the lifestyle adjustments above and managing the symptoms with medication. The American Lung Association also advises using the following management strategies:

  • protecting the lungs from flare-ups by avoiding smoking or smoky environments, being aware of air pollution, and limiting exposure to dust and fumes
  • creating a COPD care plan with a doctor, which can help people manage their medications, know what to do in the event of a flare-up, and determine when to seek emergency care
  • maintaining a moderate weight with a diet that limits salt, added sugar, and saturated and trans fats while increasing fiber, fluids, and vegetables.
  • having an active lifestyle with moderate intensity exercise, such as aerobic exercise and resistance training, which helps with oxygen flow in the body
  • getting support for any mental health conditions or symptoms, such as anxiety, fear, depression, and stress

Learn more about how to use different breathing techniques.

The tripod position can help reduce feelings of breathlessness in people with COPD. Medication, lifestyle changes, and support for mental health issues can also help people manage the symptoms of COPD more effectively and improve their quality of life.