Asthma patients taught to habitually resist the urge to take deep breaths when experiencing symptoms were rewarded with fewer symptoms and healthier lung function, according to a new study from Southern Methodist University, Dallas.
The findings are from a large clinical trial funded with a grant from the National Institutes of Health’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
The results suggest asthma patients using behavioral therapy in conjunction with their daily asthma medicine can improve their lung health over the long-term, said principal investigators Thomas Ritz and Alicia E. Meuret, both SMU clinical psychologists.
Also, sufferers may potentially reduce their dependence on emergency medication, such as rescue inhalers, the researchers said.
Asthma can be a life-threatening disease if not managed properly, according to the American Lung Association. Nearly 26 million Americans have asthma, says ALA.
One of the most common chronic disorders in childhood, asthma is the third leading cause of hospitalization among children under 15, ALA says.
Asthma attacks typically provoke sufferers to gulp air and take deep breaths to relieve the frightening fear of asphyxiation, said Ritz and Meuret. In addition, asthma sufferers tend to breathe too much even when not experiencing symptoms.
But Ritz, Meuret and their co-authors found with their research that deep breathing is exactly the wrong thing to do.
For their study, one group of asthma patients used biofeedback to monitor their breathing for reassurance they were getting sufficient oxygen. The patients practiced shallower, shorter breaths to increase their intake of carbon dioxide, CO2. A second group also practiced slower breathing, but without biofeedback.
“This study goes to the heart of hyperventilation – which is deep, rapid breathing that causes a drop in CO2 gas in the blood. That makes a person feel dizzy and short of breath,” Ritz said. “Patients in our 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 researchers reported their findings in the pulmonology medical journal Chest, “Controlling asthma by training of capnometry-assisted hypoventilation vs. slow breathing.” Ritz is a professor and Mueret an associate professor in the Department of Psychology in SMU’s Dedman College.
Shallow breathing method is counterintuitive
“When people hyperventilate, there is something very strange happening,” Meuret said. “In essence they are taking in too much air. But the sensation that they get is shortness of breath, choking, air hunger, as if they’re not getting enough air. It’s almost like a biological system error.”
Other co-authors on the study were SMU psychologist David Rosenfield, graduate student Ashton M. Steele, and physician Mark W. Millard, Baylor University Medical Center Dallas. — Margaret Allen