A breathing technique similar to that which allows Russian cosmonauts to survive for long periods in outer space is being trialled in Australia to assess its application for treating asthma.
In a controlled trial of asthma patients conducted in Brisbane, Buteyko breathing hyperventilation exercises were shown to improve symptoms, and reduce beta agonist use by 90 per cent.
However, there were no changes in physiological parameters such as peak flow rate in people using the technique.
Preliminary results of the randomised, controlled trial were reported at a meeting of the Thoracic Society of Australia and New Zealand In Hobart last month by a respiratory physician at Mater Hospital in Brisbane, Simon Bowler. The results defy obvious explanation. The research team was surprised at the results as no significant changes had been expected.
Proponents of the Buteyko technique claim that reduced volume slow breathing and the subsequent increase in carbon dioxide levels can relieve the symptoms of bronchospasm, and have a favourable effect on the long term course of asthma.
Under the study funded by the Australian Association of Asthma Foundations, 40 patients with well-documented asthma and significant daily use of bronchodilators were recruited and randomised to a Buteyko or a control group. Those in the Buteyko group received classes from a Buteyko instructor for 90 minutes a day for seven days. Patients were encouraged to minimise beta agonist use.
The control patients received a similar regimen of physiotherapy classes and standard asthma education, breathing exercises (but not hypoventilation), and relaxation techniques.
Patients In both groups were instructed to use bronchodilators only as required, and not on a routine basis.
After six weeks there was a 90 per cent reduction In beta agonist use in the Buteyko group, compared with a 5 per cent reduction in patients in the control group.
Patients in the Buteyko group reported significant improvements in both their symptoms, and their quality of life.
A further six week trial investigating the effect of reducing inhaled corticosteroid use has been completed, but data analysis is not yet complete.
About 700 New Zealanders are using the Buteyko technique for asthma control, according to Russell Stark, one of the only two Buteyko instructors teaching the method here.
The Buteyko technique was developed In the Soviet Union in the 1950s. Mainly used to treat asthma and emphysema, it has been an integral part of the Russian health system since 1981 but was unknown in the West until the early 1990s.
By learning to saturate their bodies with carbon dioxide, patients can lessen muscle tension and slow breathing to a normal rate.
The Buteyko method is used to teach patients to control an asthma attack, and toprevent attacks from occurring. Patients are never told to stop taking their prescribed medications.
“We ask people to stay on their preventative medications but to try the technique before using their relief medication when they have an attack, ” he said.
“If they find it doesn’t work, then they take their medication. “
If a patient finds the technique successful they can then talk to their GP about coming offpreventative drugs.
Patients using the technique for asthma have reported “tremendous improvements” in their quality of life, said Mr Stark. They sleep better, feel less tired and more relaxed, allergies disappear, and they are less prone to Infection.
“It Is difficult for conventional medicine to accept that such good results can be had from something that is just a breathing technique.”
In Russia, the Buteyko technique is also used to treat a wide range of conditions other than asthma. These include angina, high and low blood pressure, haemorrhoids, varicose veins and even cancer.