Shallow breaths could help asthma patients

5 November 2014 

Taking shallow breaths could be better for asthma patients, compared to taking deeper breaths, which has long been the advice of medical professionals.

A team at the Southern Methodist University (SMU), Dallas, has found that taking deep breaths is ineffective and doesn't work, while shorter breaths can boost carbon dioxide levels and improve the long-term health of the patient's lungs.

The findings are from a large clinical trial - funded by the National Institutes of Health’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute - and suggest that asthma patients who use behavioural therapy alongside their daily medicine can improve their lung health in the long term.

This is according to principal investigators and clinical psychologists at SMU Dr Thomas Ritz and Dr Alicia Meuret. The study could also help patients reduce their dependence on emergency medication, said the researchers.

Estimates from the World Health Organization (WHO) state that around 235 million people suffer from asthma globally, while it is also the most common chronic disease for children and the leading cause of hospitalisation for young people.

During an attack, sufferers are likely to gulp air and take deep breaths to relieve the experience of struggling to breathe. As well as this, people with asthma generally breathe too much even when not experiencing symptoms.

For the research, the team had one group of asthma patients used biofeedback to monitor their breathing for reassurance they were getting sufficient oxygen. They were then instructed to take shallower, shorter breaths to increase their intake of carbon dioxide, CO2. A second group also practiced slower breathing, but without biofeedback.

Dr Ritz said the study goes to the "heart of hyperventilation" as the patients in the study increased CO2 and reduced their symptoms. 

"And over a six-month period we saw in the biofeedback group an actual improvement in the physiology of their lungs.”

The team, who reported their findings in the pulmonology medical journal Chest, found that people who hyperventilate feel like they are not getting enough oxygen but in reality they are breathing in too much air.

Dr Meuret described this as "like a biological system error" as they don't need more oxygen but people start to take deeper breaths, making the symptoms worse.

Out of the 120 patients included in the study who used the biofeedback therapy, the researchers found that, out of 21 clinical indices of pathology, more than 80 per cent resulted in significant reductions. 

Developed by Dr Meuret, the biological-behavioural treatment method called Capnometry-Assisted Breathing Training (CART) has been found to reduce symptoms of panic and hyperventilation in patients with panic and anxiety.

The handheld capnometer, equipped with a digital readout, enables patients via biofeedback to track changes in their CO2 when they alter their breathing during breathing training exercises and instruction sessions. Capnometers are medical devices that can only be purchased by a health care provider.

In this latest study, the researchers saw improvement in asthma symptoms and control, better lung function, reduced over-sensitivity of the airways and less use of reliever medication, as well as improvement in physiology and the pathology of the airways.

Posted by Edward Bartel 


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