A Breath of Fresh Air in Asthma Treatment: Breathing Therapy

May 03, 2021, Publisher: Breath Hub

Asthma is one of the most common chronic diseases, and medication is no doubt the first-line treatment. However, the negative side effects of drugs, the financial burden they create, and the inclination of patients towards reducing their drug intake or switching to other methods have created a trend towards finding a more extensive treatment for asthma. Due to the direct link between asthma and respiration, the effects of breathing exercises on asthma have been under the microscope for some time.

According to studies, respiratory training may be a good alternative to drug therapy in treating asthma or providing a complementary method to alleviate attacks. Studies show that breathing exercises and conscious breathing methods result in improvements and have promising healing effects on the pathophysiology of asthma.

What is asthma?

A chronic lung disease characterized by attacks, asthma causes airways to narrow and makes it hard to breathe. Though the exact reasons causing asthma are unknown, genetic factors play a significant role in its development. The most common asthma symptoms are wheezing, shortness of breath, tightness in the chest, and coughing. The airways narrow due to the tightening and swelling of the muscles around the airways and the production of mucus, which causes sudden asthma attacks and long-term asthma flare-ups. Asthma attacks can also be triggered by cigarette smoke, perfume, pollen etc. Having trouble breathing during an attack can also cause panic. This, in turn, can make it even harder for the person to breathe— creating a vicious circle.

Respiratory training for asthma patients

A study by Dr Alicia E. Meuret and her team have proven the positive effects of respiratory training on asthma management. Meuret explains in her research that regularly practised breathing techniques significantly improve asthma patients’ quality of life.

In the study, 120 adults (aged 18-65 years) with asthma of all severity grades practised guided breathing sessions five times a week over four weeks and were informed about the correlation between breathing and asthma.

The patients were prescribed breathing exercises because of the possible link between hyperventilation, i.e. excessive breathing, and asthma. As a result, they reported a reduction in asthma symptoms and a significant improvement in their quality of life.

Asthma and hyperventilation

Nonpharmacologic methods for asthma treatment often include breathing retraining. The link between hyperventilation and asthma attacks was first established in 1946, but the impact of breathing on asthma was not fully proven until recent years.

Hyperventilation syndrome happens when frequent over-breathing leads to low levels of carbon dioxide, and it is the root cause of many health problems. Asthma patients are more likely to show symptoms of hyperventilation than other primary care patients. Therefore, the possible link between asthma and hyperventilation in the respiratory training programme formed the basis of the treatment method.

Hyperventilation and respiratory training against asthma

Dr Meuret researched the healing effects of respiratory training that aimed to reverse hyperventilation by increasing the CO2 levels through conscious breathing.

In Dr Meuret’s study, 120 asthma patients were assigned one of the two training programmes named SLOW and CART. In slow breathing and awareness training (SLOW), patients were trained to take slow, deep breaths and focus on breath awareness and how many breaths they take per minute. In capnometry-assisted respiratory training (CART), patients were trained to take shallow breaths and monitor their CO2 levels with a capnometry device. This technique also helps with the treatment of panic disorders.

You can find more on the effects of breathing exercises on panic attacks here. 

Difference between deep and shallow breathing

The outcomes of the study were monitored during the 4-week active treatment period and for 6 months to record the long-term effects. Asthma symptoms, asthma management, quality of life, pulmonary functions, airway hyperactivity and perception of breathlessness were evaluated.

In the short term, both techniques resulted in an 81% improvement in pulmonary function, whereas 6 months later, the results from CART were better. Airways of the patients in the CART group were reported to be more dilated, their CO2 levels were more normalized, and they were better at dealing with asthma attacks than patients practising SLOW.

Breathing techniques can help you

Breathing exercises are used in the treatment of many health problems, especially asthma and panic attacks. Breath awareness and breath control not only ease or eliminate physical symptoms, but also help patients become emotionally and psychologically stronger. Considering that breathing may benefit each patient at a different rate, please learn more about the nonpharmacologic strategies that may help you and consult your doctor.