Asthma is horrid! It’s a chronic (long-term) lung disease that inflames and narrows the airways leading to frequent episodes of wheezing, chest tightness, shortness of breath, and cough. Asthma affects as many as 334 million people of all ages in all parts of the world. Even worse, avoidable asthma deaths are still occurring due to inappropriate management, including over-reliance on reliever medication rather than preventer medication. Anyone who suffers with asthma (mild or severe) knows the toll it takes on quality of life – limiting activities, causing anxiety, frequent trips to your doctor and in many cases hospital admissions.
Medications (inhalers and nebulisers) are provided to help relieve the tightness of the airways (bronchochonstriction) and to dampen down the inflammation. Medications for many are essential but there is research to suggest that non-pharmacological treatments may also be helpful in managing symptoms. These usually focus on breathing re-training. There are a few different breathing regimes that have been shown to help asthma. The Buteyko Method is probably the most controversial, due mainly to their claims to “cure” asthma and the scientific rationale underpinning their theory of the cause of asthma. However, whilst Buteyko practitioners may make some extreme claims the actual theory of treatment is sound. The mainstay of the Buteyko method is breath holding, the purpose of this is to raise carbon dioxide levels within the body. Low carbon dioxide levels are associated with a myriad of problems and the one that is most relevant for asthma is that low carbon dioxide triggers bronchoconstriction – so fast breathing, or irregular breathing can make your asthma worse.
Another breathing regime known as the Papworth Method is generally delivered by physiotherapists. There are similarities in both treatments with the aim for both techniques being to reduce the rate and depth of breathing. Many people with asthma unconsciously over-breathe, repeated attacks that cause tightness and wheezing having habitualised them to poor breathing patterns.
However, the good news for sufferers is that research suggests that either physiotherapy led breathing re-training, with a focus on slow breathing, diaphragmatic breathing and relaxation, or Buteyko´s breath hold treatments can lead to positive benefits for people with asthma. In one study comparing the two regimes both groups showed an increase in the proportion of patients who demonstrated asthma control and in the Buteyko group corticosteroid inhaler use was reduced.
Physiotherapy led studies have shown an improvement in asthma quality of life and one comprehensive review by Bruurs and colleagues from The Netherlands suggests that physiotherapy breathing exercises can help reduce rescue medication use, improve quality of life, reduce anxiety and depression and improve asthma control.
So, take control! If I can help in any way, please get in touch. I provide breathing retraining and/or Buteyko therapy by skype and face to face.
Rachel Garrod PhD Respiratory Physiotherapist (Spanish and UK registration)