Until recently, western medical research has been inconclusive in determining whether or not there is real benefit for an asthmatic to conduct breathing exercises as part of an overall asthma management program. These exercises have certainly been popular in many alternative type programs but have not yet been embraced by allopathic, or traditional western physicians. But they are beneficial and will help an asthma sufferer reduce symptoms and increase strength.
The two most often practiced techniques are Buteyko (named after the Russian doctor who developed them) and a yoga training technique known as pranayama. In very simple terms, Buteyko exercises involve breathing through the nose (not mouth), exhaling for as long as possible and then holding the breath as long as possible at the end of the exhale. During the inhale, a series of short, but shallow breaths are practiced. Pranayama is about correct posture, relaxation and controlled, slow inhalation and exhalation, with a focus on using the diaphragm muscles to assist with breathing.
While breathing techniques have long been supported by naturopathic physicians, it is only in the last several years that the allopathic medical community (traditional doctors) has moved to try and quantify any potential benefit from these exercises. One study, published in the March 2004 edition of “Current Opinion in Pulmonary Medicine” concluded there might be some benefit, although more study was required. In several patient groups (some using Buteyko training and others using Pranayana), there did appear to be reduced asthma symptoms although lung function did not appreciably change (as measured by PEFR). Nevertheless, patients felt better and did experience a reduction in need for relief medications.
How do breathing exercises help asthmatics?
Since asthma is related to inflammation of the lungs and constriction of the smooth involuntary bronchiole muscles, how can doing breathing exercises help alleviate your symptoms?
For starters, it is estimated that about 30% of asthmatics suffer some degree of breathing dysfunction. Bad habits are easily learned when suffering from asthma symptoms and it is not uncommon for those habits to continue in between attacks breathing through the mouth and short, shallow breaths for example. This type of breathing deprives the lungs of their full potential to effectively exchange oxygen with carbon dioxide. Breathing exercises enforce good habits where the full range of lung function is used. Consequently, the body gets the oxygen it needs and you will feel better, particularly your energy levels. And not only will it make the breathing process more efficient, there is evidence that breathing muscles (diaphragm and lung muscles) are strengthened. So even if breath training doesn’t directly improve lung function, eliminating bad habits will improve overall health and quality of life. And this new energy level is important in getting stronger and finding the motivation to attack asthma with a total management plan that results in symptoms being completely controlled with very little, if any, need for medications.
In addition to increased energy levels and stronger lung muscles, there is another benefit to breathing exercises even if it doesn’t directly result in increased lung function. And that is when actually enduring an asthma attack. Anyone who has asthma knows what it is like to struggle for breath. You can’t get enough air into your lungs and just as agonizing, you can’t seem to get any air out. Asthmatics who practice correct breathing exercises are much more likely to be able to endure, in a controlled manner, an asthma attack than those that don’t. Of course that is not to say that controlled breathing replaces relief medication it most certainly doesn’t. But it does contribute, in a real way, to stabilizing the attack because it makes it much easier for you to fight the temptation to start breathing in an uncontrolled manner. Indeed, biofeedback, a technique in which patients are trained to basically will themselves to breath more efficiently, seems to be getting more and more traction.
Controlling asthma cannot be achieved by only using one tool. Multiple tools should be used in addition to the control and relief medications prescribed by your physician. Diet, exercise, trigger controls are all essential components; and so is a good and consistent program of breathing exercises. Just one tool won’t get rid of your asthma symptoms. But using all the tools available to you can and there is no reason you can’t enjoy a symptom free lifestyle.