A Breath of Fresh Air in the Way Cases of Asthma Are Handled

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Byline: By MADELEINE BRINDLEY Western Mail

Self-help is an unfashionable approach to treating chronic asthma, but breathing exercises really can bring relief, says Dr Mark Porter MODERN medicine may have transformed the management of conditions such as asthma, diabetes and heart disease, but it has also encouraged an overdependence on medication.

As a result, when faced with troublesome symptoms, such as coughing and wheezing in asthma, the first thing both doctor and patient do is look to adjust the medication.

But have we been blinded by science? Could asthmatics be doing more to help themselves?

Self-help interventions in asthma tend not to get the prominence they deserve because of the interests of the drugs industry, which funds most of today's clinical trials.

Asthma is a multi-billion- pound global industry - the NHS spends more than pounds 900m a year on it - and drug companies aren't keen to fund research into drug-free treatments.

Meanwhile, doctors are reluctant to recommend treatments that don't have clinical trial data to support their use. But a lack of evidence doesn't mean it won't help.

Breathing exercises are a case in point. When the Russian scientist Konstantin Buteyko suggested, in the early 1950s, that breathing exercises could reduce the need for medication in people with asthma, he was derided. Now a recent study into the Buteyko method has shown that it halved volunteers' inhaler usage within weeks.

A number of studies have shown that teaching people with asthma to breathe in a controlled manner - whether through the Buteyko breathing method, yoga, physiotherapy or even playing the clarinet - can alleviate symptoms and reduce the need for medication. The nature of the link is the subject of ongoing research, but evidence points to a tendency for some people with asthma to overbreathe or hyperventilate.

This is often associated with anxiety, but can develop into a long-term habit thought to affect asthma in three different ways - first, people who hyperventilate tend to breathe through their mouths rather than their noses.

Breathing in through the nose warms and humidifies air, making it less likely to irritate the sensitive linings of asthmatics' airways. Second, hyperventilation is often accompanied by a sensation of breathlessness, which can make someone with asthma feel anxious, which in turn makes them hyperventilate more. …