Can you stop an asthma attack simply by telling your body to relax your tracheal muscles? Researchers in the field of biofeedback treatment believe that you can. Asthma is one of dozen or so that have been successfully treated using biofeedback to help patients learn to control what are usually involuntary and unconscious muscle reactions.
Chances are that you were taught in biology class that automatic functions like your heart rate and your body temperature are outside your conscious control. The truth is, though, that scientists have known since the 1960s that it is possible to train yourself to influence unconscious reflexes like the beat of your heart and the contraction of certain muscles. Studies at the National Institutes for Health have even shown that some people can be trained to lower their blood pressure by exerting the will to do so.
Biofeedback training is a CAM (complementary and alternative medicine) treatment that is 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. In the years since his announcement, though, independent research has proven that it’s true. Biofeedback training is now an accepted treatment for migraines, some types of asthma and is being researched as a primary treatment for hypertension.
Asthma is the result of inflammation of the muscles surrounding the airways. One way that biofeedback could help is by training asthma patients to consciously relax those muscles. Biofeedback is also used to help people with asthma 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, never 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 help asthma patients identify this pattern of breathing – called ‘barrel breathing’ – and alter it. Using pneumographic biofeedback, they can be taught to recognize the change in their heart rate when they are breathing that way, and consciously adapt their breathing to lower their heart rate. Several small studies have shown that this training is related to a reduction in asthma symptoms and even reduced inflammation of the lungs and respiratory impedance. In a study reported in the American College of Chest Physicians in 2004, Paul M. Lehrer reported that patients treated with heart rate variability biorhythm used less medication and showed improvement in 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 are working with a trained biofeedback trainer, and keep your doctor in the loop. He can help monitor your condition and adjust your medication as needed.