Sylvia Thompson looks at a new treatment for asthma, Irish Times, 13/1/1997
"Ashtma is a breathing disorder and all asthmatics suffer from chronic hyper-ventilation," says Sasha Stalmatsky, a Buteyko method practitioner who trained with Prof Buteyko, the medical doctor who began developing his technique in Russia 20 years ago.
According to Buteyko, asthmatics breathe in about 15 litres of air a minute as compared to the norm of five litres. Contrary to poular belief and to much of the established theory on asthma, Buteyko discovered that deep breathing has a counter-productive effect on asthma in that it upsets the ratio of oxygen to carbon dioxide in the body.
Buteyko's research found that the body's need for carbon dioxide to allow the correct release and retention of oxygen in the blood is seriously underfunded through chronic over-breathing. Thus, only by breathing less deeply will the correct amount of carbon dioxide become available to allow the optimum levels of oxygen to reach the bodily organs and dilate the bronchial tubes.
Over a series of five 180-minute daily workshops, Buteyko practitioners teach the asthmatic the techniques of shallow nasal breathing. Then, over time and with practice, the asthmatic continues to breathe in this shallow way which prevents overstraining and thus prevents asthma attacks. Simply doing some shallow breathing exercises can, with practice, according to Stalmatsky, counteract an asthma attack.
Joan Goldenberg (53) had been dealing with her asthma in the conventional way until she went to a series of Buteyko workshops in London last April. "I was taking more than 20 shots of reliever medication and six shots of preventative daily," she explains.
"All asthmatics are taught to breathe deeply and slowly in conventional asthma treatment whereas the Buteyko method teaches the opposite. With some persuasion I went along to the workshops and since then, life has been wonderful.
"The Buteyko method isn't a cure. I will always have asthma but since I have done the course, I've saved myself from about 6,000 shots of drugs.
"The psycholgical reliance on medication is the hardest thing to overcome -although I did go out once without my medication and and when I felt an attack coming on, I practised my shallow breathing and it went away," she adds.
Tina Deegan (17) has suffered from asthma for three years. Before she went to the Buteyko workshops she was taking her preventative medication twice daily and her reliever medication a few times a week. Now she rarely has to take her relievers. "When I went to the workshop, I was told I was breathing for six people," she says. "I learned how to breathe in and out through my nose only and to control my breathing with pauses," she explains.
"And if you find that you breathe through your mouth at night-time, they recommend that you tape your mouth up. I did this and it has helped tremendously. I find it makes such a difference to the whole day. I'm bouncing with energy. If I feel a bit tight (chested), I do the exercises and it goes.
"In the beginning I found the exercises very difficult but I was determined to do it. Now I have slipped into the routine of shallow breathing all the time and I only need to do the exercises twice a day," she adds.
The Buteyko method is still viewed with scepticism among many medical professionals and asthma societies. "The bottom line is that anything that helps is welcome but asthma is so variable it is difficult to prove what causes improvement," says Geralyn Hynes, Asthma Society nurse. "We wouldn't advise people not to try the Buteyko method but to stay on the medication while doing so."
However, scientific trials in Australia - funded by the Asthma Foundation there - compared a control group which received standard asthma medication with a Butekyo group over 12 weeks. At the end of the trials, the Buteyko group had reduced its reliance on bronchodilators by 90% and steroids by 40% while the control group showed no reduction in medication.
Stalmatsky concedes that not all sufferers can discontinue their medication following the workshops. "Children are easier to treat because they have better metabolic processes and their lungs are not so damaged. It is more complicated with patients who have suffered a collapsed lung or steroid deficiency," he says.
The Buteyko method is also used for other problems linked to hyperventilation such as sinusitis, eczema, panic attacks, snoring and sleep apnoea.