Techniques to help people with asthma breathe easy

Author: Dr Mike Thomas, Asthma UK Senior Research Fellow, University of Aberdeen

Date: Oct 2010

New research funded by Asthma UK, shows that breathing techniques can help to treat people who continue to experience asthma symptoms in spite of current drug treatments.

Dr Mike Thomas at the University of Aberdeen has shown that breathing exercises taught by a physiotherapist could work alongside asthma medicines to treat symptoms in people who have difficultly controlling their asthma.

There are 5.4 million people in the UK with asthma and many continue to experience debilitating symptoms despite current drug treatments. In the UK, over 200 people a day are rushed to hospital with life-threatening asthma attacks and there are 1,200 asthma deaths each year.

Participants for this study attended three training sessions, supervised by a physiotherapist, over the course of six months.

They were taught to recognise ‘dysfunctional breathing’ such as hyperventilating (over-breathing) and breathing too shallowly through the mouth and upper-chest. They were then taught appropriate, regular, diaphragmatic and nasal breathing techniques and were encouraged to practice these exercises for at least ten minutes each day.

Criticisms of similar studies have suggested that simply meeting regularly with a health professional to discuss your asthma can help you to better manage your symptoms.

To stop this from confusing the results of this study, the control group received three sessions of general asthma education from a nurse over the same period. This ensured that any difference between the two groups was due to the affect of the breathing techniques.

One month after the final session had been completed, researchers assessed both groups by measuring asthma symptoms and lung function and asking participants about their quality of life. They found significant improvements in asthma control for both groups.

After six months however, researchers found that the test group’s asthma control had continued to improve markedly, whereas for the control group, it had already began to drop back to original levels.

Crucially the test group also showed long-term improvements in other measures which capture patients’ experience of their illness, such as their emotional well-being and whether their asthma interfered with their daily lives.

As breathing exercises do not affect airway inflammation or the underlying physiology of asthma, they would provide an add-on therapy, rather than reducing the need for asthma medicines themselves.

People with asthma are often interested in how non-drug treatments could help them and this research has demonstrated that these exercises have an important role to play.

Dr Mike Thomas, Asthma UK Senior Research Fellow, says : "We hope that the results of this study will encourage the NHS to provide wider access to trained chest physiotherapists for people with asthma.

"Breathing exercises are not a cure, but for many they could mean the difference between being unable to leave the house or play with their children, and living a normal, symptom-free life."

Dr Elaine Vickers, Research Relations Manager, Asthma UK says: "This research is important as it empowers people with asthma to feel that they can have an impact on their condition and the affect it has on their lives.

"For many people with asthma, their treatment is something which is too often out of their hands. This research demonstrates that people need to be actively involved in their treatment and that this can have huge benefits, both in terms of their symptom control and their general quality of life."

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Last revised: 27 November 2017

Next review: 27 November 2020