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Controlling Asthma With Biofeedback

Aug 17, 2007
Here's an interesting question for anyone suffering from asthma: Can you stop an asthma attack simply by telling your body to relax your tracheal muscles?

While at one time this may have sounded like a ridiculous question, researchers in the field of biofeedback treatment now believe that it is possible. Asthma is one of a dozen or so conditions that have been successfully treated by using biofeedback to control what are usually involuntary and unconscious muscle reactions.

You were likely taught in biology class that automatic functions such as your heart rate and your body temperature are outside your conscious control. The truth is, however, since the 1960s scientists have known that it's possible to train yourself to influence unconscious reflexes such as the beat of your heart and the contraction of certain muscles. Studies at the National Institutes For Health have even demonstrated that some people can be trained to lower their blood pressure simply by exerting their will.

Biofeedback training is an alternative treatment that's gaining increasing respect in medical circles. When Dr. Neal Miller, a Yale neuroscientist, first proposed that people could consciously control their automatic muscle functions, the entire medical community branded him a heretic. Yet, in the years since his pronouncement, independent research has proven him true. Biofeedback training is now an accepted treatment for migraines and some forms of asthma, and is current being studied as a primary treatment approach for hypertension.

To understand how biofeedback training can be helpful in treating asthma, you first need to understand the disease.

Normally, when you breathe, you draw air in through your nose and mouth. It goes down the trachea and into the lungs through 'bronchia' and 'bronchioles', fleshy tubes whose job is to carry air into your lungs. In normal, healthy lungs, those tubes are firm and round, completely open and unobstructed. Air moves in and out of the lungs through them easily.

Asthmatic bronchia are nearly always slightly inflamed, the walls swollen, red and sensitive. The slight constriction may not make much difference most of the time, but it does make the bronchial walls far more sensitive. When irritants such as cigarette smoke, chemicals or allergens are drawn in through the bronchial passages, the tiny particles in them irritate the lining of the bronchial walls, and they become even more swollen. At the same time, your lungs produce thick, heavy mucus in an effort to soothe the irritation. This closes the bronchial tubes down even more, making it more and more difficult to get air in and out of your lungs. Finally, the muscles around these tubes begin to tighten, adding a stranglehold from the outside to the narrowing on the passageway on the inside.

Biofeedback can be helpful in treating asthma by training sufferers to consciously relax these muscles. It can also help asthmatics to recognize and alter abnormal breathing patterns. According to the Society for Applied Psychotherapy and Biofeedback, many asthmatics have abnormal breathing patterns. They tend to take a deep in-breath, followed by several shallow in-and-out breaths, without ever completely emptying their lungs of the first breath. Because the air sacs don't empty, they can't be refilled, leaving the asthmatic patient chronically short of breath.

Biofeedback can be used to identify this pattern of breathing - called 'barrel breathing' - and alter it. Using pneumographic biofeedback, asthmatics can be taught to recognize the change in their heart rate when they're barrel breathing and consciously adapt their breathing to lower their heart rate. Several small studies have shown that biofeedback training can reduce asthma symptoms and even reduce inflammation of the lungs and respiratory impedance. In a study reported in the American College of Chest Physicians in 2004 by Paul M. Lehrer, patients who were treated with heart rate variability biorhythm used less medication and showed improvement in their pulmonary function. The researchers concluded that biofeedback therapy may help reduce the use of steroid medication.

The National Institutes of Health offer the following advice for those who'd like to try biofeedback to reduce their dependence on asthma medication ... be sure that you're working with a trained biofeedback trainer, and keep your physician in the loop. He can help monitor your condition and adjust your medication as needed.
About the Author
Want to learn more about asthma? Want to understand asthma symptoms, asthma triggers, exercise-induced asthma, asthma treatments, and much more? Visit: Asthma Insights
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