If you’ve ever swam in the ocean and swallowed a big gulp of salt water, then you know what it’s like to worry about gasping for air. So for those with asthma, who live in constant fear of catching their breath, anxiety would seem to be a common problem. But a major study from England suggests that breathing disorders triggered by nervous feelings are often overlooked in patients with asthma.
“Asthma is an intrisically anxiety-provoking condition,” says lead author Mike Thomas, MD, of the University of Leicester. “The question is, is this a rather rare thing, or is it the tip of the iceberg that we haven’t been recognizing?”
Thomas argues that the problem is much bigger than many realized. Out of nearly 200 adults who were diagnosed with asthma, Thomas’s team found that 29% of the patients also suffered from dysfunctional breathing, commonly referred to as hyperventilating. Such troubles are usually traced to emotional concerns like stress rather than the physical causes linked to asthma.
“The higher stress of asthma may be what’s causing the abnormal breathing,” he says. Thomas admits that further research must bear this out, but if patients are having trouble coping with their condition, then special interventions might help.
“There might be a significant amount of asthma patients who have symptoms and an impaired quality of life from abnormal breathing problems that could be rectified with rather simple, nonpharmacological intervention,” he says.
One way might be the Buteyko method, developed by a Russian doctor who contends that asthma is really caused by overbreathing. “He claims to cure people with asthma by retraining their breathing,” explains Thomas.
These ideas have not stood up to scientific scrutiny, Thomas is quick to point out, but the Buteyko method is growing in popularity in Europe and Australia. Patients are taught how to slow down their breathing, and some followers agree to tape their mouth shut at night to learn how breath through their nose.
Don’t expect American doctors to warm up to these ideas anytime soon. “I’m not ready to subscribe to the fact of treating breathing separate and apart from treating asthma,” says Harold Nelson, MD, of the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver, Colorado. Although “breathing training” has been fashionable at times–and may help with vocal cord disorders–Nelson says he has not found it be useful for people with asthma. Only the tried and true methods seem to work.
“If you treat people with effective medications they become amazingly asypmtomatic,” says Nelson.
And for that matter, the results of Thomas’s research, which were published in the British Medical Journal, are not exactly a big hit in Britain, either. “We do not believe that nearly a third of patients in general practice with a diagnosis of asthma have been wrongly diagnosed,” cautions an editorial in the same journal.
Thomas is the first to admit that his study has limitations. And he says that breathing techniques will not help with actual asthma. “There is no doubt that asthma patients need proper treatments,” he says. But he contends that anxiety can add to the misery of asthma.
At least on this point, experts seem to agree.
“It wouldn’t be surprising that people would get anxious if they can’t breath,” says Nelson.
Article By: Eric Sabo, Medical Writer