Asthma - breathing techniques

Written by: 
Richard Thomas, medical writer

 Asthma is an allergic reaction that causes inflammationThe body’s response to injury. of the airways. This leads to wheezing, coughing, tightness in the chest and severe shortness of breath.

The condition is potentially life-threatening. It has complex causes, and varying degrees of severity. You can choose from a wide range of treatment options, including many that are regarded as unorthodox or are considered to be complementary therapies.

The most effective complementary treatments for asthma are breathing and relaxation techniques that address the combination of emotional and physical triggers that seems to lie behind the onset of asthma. They include:

Our emotions are linked to the body’s ‘fight or flight’ autonomicThe part of the nervous system supplying muscles such as the heart and bowels, known as involuntary muscles. nervous system, which is also linked to how we breathe. The autonomicThe part of the nervous system supplying muscles such as the heart and bowels, known as involuntary muscles. nervous system causes breathing to be affected by emotions such as anger and fear, anxiety and stressRelating to injury or concern.

Tip Breathing is easiest when you are relaxed, but more difficult when you are under emotional strain. If you feel angry, afraid, anxious or stressed, you find it harder to breathe. The most effective complementary treatments for asthma are ones that help you relax and promote correct breathing. 

In recent years the treatment that has had most proven success is the Buteyko (pronounced bu-tay-ko) technique, sometimes called the Buteyko method. The Buteyko technique is a combination of breathing exercises, relaxation, physical exercise and diet. 

Clinical trials in several countries demonstrated improvements within three to six months in people following the Buteyko technique fully. These improvements included a reduction in wheezing, breathlessness and coughing. [1]

The Buteyko technique

The Buteyko technique was developed in Russia in the 1950s by a doctor named Konstantin Buteyko. The technique is based on the notion that asthmatics aggravate their condition by hyperventilating or overbreathing. According to Dr Buteyko, if you overbreathe you release too much carbon dioxide from your lungs and this will aggravate inflammationThe body’s response to injury. of your lungs’ airways. 

The technique won official recognition in the former Soviet Union in 1981. Following a number of successful trials, it has now been adopted by medical authorities in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Britain, where it is the only complementary therapy endorsed officially for the treatment of asthma. [2, 3, 4, 5, 6]

A trial in Australia in 1998, for example, showed that asthma-sufferers were able to reduce their need for reliever inhalers (‘puffers’) by an average of 90 per cent in less than three months using the method. A similar result was found in a 2008 Canadian study. [7]

The technique was endorsed in May 2008 by the British Guidelines for the Management of Asthma, produced jointly by the Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network and the British Thoracic Society, as a treatment proven both to reduce asthma symptoms and the use of inhalers. [8] 

Trained practitioners instruct asthmatics in using breathing exercises that are designed to prevent or control overbreathing. They also advise asthmatics how best to manage the condition through dietary changes.

‘Lessons’ aim to train asthmatics to breathe at normal levels through exercises that involve: 

  • learning how to unblock the nose naturally using a special ‘breath hold’ exercise
  • switching from mouth breathing to nose breathing
  • relaxing the diaphragm to the point of feeling an air shortage
  • doing physical exercise without hyperventilating
  • learning how to stop coughing and wheezing.

An exercise known as the ‘control pause’ (CP) is central to the technique. This exercise measures how long you can comfortably hold your breath. The following self-help exercise is taken from the book on the technique Close Your Mouth: [9]

  • sit down in a reasonably upright posture
  • take a small (barely noticeable) breath in, and another small breath out
  • hold your nose on the ‘out’ breath but don’t allow your lungs to empty completely; here you hold your nose to prevent air entering your airways
  • count how many seconds you can comfortably last before you need to breathe in again; you should not hold your breath so long that you need to take a big breath afterwards.

Your first intake of breath after the control pause should be no greater than the breath you took before measuring.

The technique includes other breathing techniques. These are not physically demanding. Most are done while you are sitting in a chair. 

Other techniques

Other complementary therapies seek to help asthmatics with their breathing by improving their posture. These include the Alexander Technique, osteopathyA therapeutic system that centres around the concept that many conditions are related to musculoskeletal disorders. and chiropractic. Some naturopaths trained in manipulation also claim to be able to help.

The Alexander Technique 

The Alexander Technique, developed by Australian actor Matthias Alexander in the early 20th century, is a set of simple exercises designed to undo bad postural habits. The technique is widely recognised as an important way of ‘re-educating’ the body to stand and sit correctly – with head, neck and spine correctly aligned. According to supporters of the technique, the benefits that result help with a number of disorders including breathing and muscleTissue made up of cells that can contract to bring about movement. tension problems. [10] 

Osteopathy and chiropractic 

These complementary therapies, which were developed independently of each other in the 19th century in North America, help people relax their muscles and ease their breathing through manipulation of the body’s musculoskeletal system. Both therapies are now almost ‘mainstream’. Their similar but separate techniques are widely practised throughout the world and are recognised by medical authorities in many countries. 

Some forms of yoga also include techniques for improving posture (‘asanas’) and breath control (‘pranayamas’) that can offer alternatives for asthma sufferers. But for proper effect these techniques need to be taught by an individual who uses and understands them, and not all of them may be suitable for asthmatics. They are not necessarily to be classed as medical or therapeutic techniques. 

Contacts 

The Buteyko Clinic (Russia and elsewhere): www.buteykoclinic.com

Buteyko Breathing Association (UK): www.buteykobreathing.org. The association teaches a short post-graduate course and has some 100 healthcare professional members.

The Alexander Technique (UK): www.stat.org.uk 

General Chiropractic Council (UK): www.gcc-uk.org; www.chiropractor-help.co.uk

International Osteopathy Directory: www.internationalholistictherapiesdirectories.com/osteopathy_internation...

References: 

1. www.buteykoclinic.com/results-to-expect.html

2. Buteyko breathing technique in asthma: a blinded randomised controlled trialA study comparing the outcomes between one or more different treatments for a disease (or in some instances, preventive measures against that disease) and no active treatment at all (the placebo group). Study participants are allocated to the various groups on a random basis. May be abbreviated to RCT.. Bowler SD, Green A, Mitchell CA. Medical Journal of Australia. 1998;169:575-8. Available online. URL: http://www.mja.com.au/public/issues/xmas98/bowler/bowler.html

3. Buteyko breathing technique for asthma: an effective intervention. McHugh P, Aitcheson F, Duncan B, Houghton F. New Zealand Medical Journal. 2003; 116(1187). Available online. URL: http://www.nzma.org.nz/journal/116-1187/710/

4. Effect of two breathing exercises (Buteyko and pranayama) in asthma: a randomised controlled trialA study comparing the outcomes between one or more different treatments for a disease (or in some instances, preventive measures against that disease) and no active treatment at all (the placebo group). Study participants are allocated to the various groups on a random basis. May be abbreviated to RCT.. Cooper S, Oborne J, Newton S et al. Thorax. 2003; 58:674-9.

5. Buteyko breathing technique and asthma in children: a case series. McHugh P, Aitcheson F, Duncan B, Houghton F. Asthma Clinical Study. New Zealand Medical Journal. 19 May 2006, Vol 119 No 1234. Available online. URL: http://www.nzma.org.nz/journal/119-1234/1988/

6. A clinical trial of the Buteyko Breathing Technique in asthma as taught by a Video. Opat AJ, Cohen MM, Bailey MJ, Abramson MJ. Journal of Asthma. 2000;37(7):557-564

7. Buteyko and chest physiotherapyThe use of physical therapies such as exercise, massage and manipulation. improve asthma control. Cowie R et al (Univ of Calgary). Respiratory Medicine. 2008

8. www.fih.org.uk/news/buteyko_technique.html

9. Close Your Mouth: Buteyko Breathing Clinic self help manual. Patrick McKeown. Asthma Care. 2004.

10. www.alexandertechnique.com/at.htm]