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David Baxter PhD

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Asthma treatment: Do complementary and alternative approaches work?
By Mayo Clinic Staff
Oct 4, 2007

Many people try complementary and alternative asthma treatments ranging from herbs to yoga. Discover which home remedies for asthma are most likely to work.

Complementary and alternative asthma treatments range from breathing exercises to herbal remedies. There's limited information about whether most of these treatments really work, but many people try them and claim they help. Here's what the evidence says.

Three promising alternative asthma treatments
More research is still needed to determine just how effective they are, but breathing exercises, yoga and physical exercise are a few of the most promising complementary and alternative asthma treatments.

Breathing exercises
Breathing exercises may improve your quality of life, help reduce asthma symptoms and reduce the amount of medication needed to control your asthma. Two breathing exercises that have been studied include:

  • The Buteyko breathing technique. Developed in the 1950s, this method was used to treat asthma in the former Soviet Union. In recent years, it has gained popularity elsewhere. This technique teaches you to habitually breathe less. This prevents breathing too much (hyperventilation). The Buteyko technique also includes advice about relaxation and stress reduction, medication use, nutrition and general health.
  • The Papworth method. This sequence of relaxation and breathing techniques involves deep belly breathing (called diaphragmatic breathing), nose breathing and matching your breathing to suit whatever activity you're doing. Some evidence suggests this technique significantly reduces asthma symptoms.
While breathing exercises for asthma are gaining recognition and popularity in the United States, few experts are trained to provide instruction. If you decide to try breathing exercises, you may have to rely on instructional videos or books.

This gentle form of exercise has been practiced for thousands of years. There are several types of yoga, but all kinds entail doing a series of stretching poses. In addition to providing the benefits of exercise, yoga also incorporates breathing techniques ? called pranayama ? which may help reduce asthma symptoms. While more studies are needed to determine how helpful yoga is in treating asthma, doing yoga on a regular basis might help relieve stress ? and improve your overall fitness and well-being.

You can ? and should ? keep physically active if you have asthma. Staying active helps control your symptoms and helps you stay healthy. Regular exercise strengthens your lungs so that they don't have to work so hard at breathing. Aim for 30 minutes of physical activity on most days. If you've been inactive, start slowly and gradually increase your activity over time. And, you don't have to do your daily exercise all at once. Doing something that gets your blood pumping and gets you breathing harder for a few short periods ? such as 10 or 15 minutes at a time ? works too.

Keep in mind that exercising in cold weather may trigger symptoms. If you do exercise in cold temperatures, wear a face mask to warm the air you breathe. And don't exercise in temperatures below zero. Activities such as golf, walking and swimming are less likely to trigger attacks, but be sure to discuss any exercise program with your doctor.

Complementary and alternative treatments for asthma with unproven benefits
While a number of people try them, evidence is still unclear whether any of the following treatments really work for asthma.

Acupuncture involves the insertion of thin needles to various depths at strategic points on your body. Acupuncture originated in China thousands of years ago, but over the past two decades its popularity has grown significantly in other parts of the world. While some evidence suggests that asthma symptoms improve with acupuncture treatment, there's still not enough solid evidence to be certain it helps.

Relaxation therapy
Relaxation therapy techniques include meditation, biofeedback, hypnosis and progressive muscle relaxation. Although these techniques seem to reduce stress and promote well-being, it's still unclear exactly what benefits relaxation therapy techniques provide for asthma. Initial research does show that muscle relaxation techniques may improve lung function.

Homeopathy aims to stimulate the body's self-healing response using very small doses of substances that cause symptoms. In the case of asthma, homeopathic remedies are made from substances that generally trigger an asthmatic reaction, such as pollen or weeds. There's still not enough clear evidence to determine if homeopathy helps treat asthma. The substances that trigger symptoms are used in such minute amounts they are unlikely to cause a reaction. Even so, most asthma experts discourage homeopathic treatment.

Massage and chiropractic treatment
Although some claim that these treatments help, there's no solid evidence that physical manipulation of the spine or muscles, such as massage therapy or chiropractic treatments, helps with asthma symptoms.

Muscle training
This technique helps strengthen the lung muscles with a series of breathing exercises using a special, hand-held breathing apparatus. This type of lung training is sometimes used for other lung diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and to strengthen the lungs after certain types of surgery. There still isn't sufficient evidence to verify whether this technique helps with asthma.

Herbal remedies
Herbal remedies including butterbur, ginkgo extract and dried ivy have been tried to help with asthma symptoms. But studies are unclear about the benefit of these or other herbal treatments for asthma. Herbal remedies can cause unwanted side effects and interact with prescription medications ? and they may not contain consistent doses and may contain harmful substances. Always talk to your doctor before trying any herbal remedy.

Consider the evidence and safety
In most cases, more well-designed studies are needed to make a clear judgment about which CAM therapies for asthma are likely to help. But, keep in mind that lack of solid evidence doesn't necessarily mean these treatments don't work. Although they haven't been rigorously tested in a way that proves they're effective, most haven't been proved ineffective either ? they simply haven't been investigated thoroughly enough to make a judgment. While most of these treatments are still not proved, the good news is that it's generally safe to try them along with regular asthma treatment ? with the exception of certain herbal supplements, which can be dangerous for some people.

If you do decide to try any complementary or alternative treatment for asthma, be sure to first talk to your doctor about it ? and continue your regular treatment. Though some of these treatments may help, when it comes to controlling asthma, alternative treatment is never a substitute for prescribed medications and advice from your doctor.
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