After being warned by the government to stay at home to avoid the recent bad air pollution, Britain’s 3 million asthma sufferers will be eager to hear of a treatment that has just started in this country.
The Buteyko method teaches asthmatics to control their symptoms using a breathing technique, rather than conventional drugs.
Among the first British patients was Jonathan Aitken, Treasury Chief Secretary, who was treated by the method’s senior instructor, Christopher Drake. Mr Drake has bought the Buteyko Breath Reconditioning Technique from Australia, where it is undergoing the first clinical trials.
A late-onset asthmatic, Mr Aitken had for the past 5 years suffered typical asthma symptoms, including attacks of coughing and breathlessness. Since he started practising the Buteyko method three months ago, his symptoms have become minimal and he no longer uses any reliever medication. ‘I have tried plenty of treatments, but this is the only one that has really worked,’ he says. ‘I think it is a remarkable one that could help many people’.
One in 20 British adults suffers from asthma, a chronic and incurable disease affecting the airways. Its prevalence is increasing worldwide, and in the UK it causes 7 million days off work and kills someone every four hours.
The primary cause is unknown, but once the condition develops – which can be at any age – symptoms can be triggered be secondary factors such as cold air, exercise, allergens and stress, which cause the airways to contract.
Most asthmatics rely on conventional medicine to control symptoms. Preventive corticosteroids act slowly to reduce inflammation, and bronchodilators, such as Ventolin, open the airways and bring instant relief during an attack. Severe asthmatics may be prescribed steroid tablets.
Asthma prescriptions cost the NHS (UK pounds) 350m a year (a figure which has doubled over the past decade), yet many specialists and organisations such as the National Asthma Campaign believe there is no real alternative.
Mr. Drake, however, is critical of conventional drugs because they treat the symptoms and not the cause. The Buteyko method is based on the findings of a Russian scientist 40 years ago, that asthma is caused by a simple but fundamental and unrecognised disorder: long-term over-breathing.
‘Asthmatics are chronically hyperventilating all the time’ says Mr Drake. Imagine if our body temperature was five times what it should be:we’d be dead. Well, some asthmatics breathe five times more than they should.’
This, he explains, has wide repercussions within the body, the most significant being a loss of carbon dioxide, the bodys own bronchodilator, which ultimately leads to the symptoms of asthma.
The Buteyko method uses shallow breathing to reverse the condition. Carbon dioxide levels are restored and the symptoms disappear.
The method is simple but it takes commitment to change the breathing habits of a lifetime. ‘Generally, after a couple of days people can learn to control their asthma attacks without bronchodilators.’ says Mr. Drake. ‘After a few more days, attacks are reduced and, if the technique is maintained, patients can become asymptomatic.’
Mr Drake stresses that the method is quite safe as medication is only reduced as peoples symptoms improve. ‘The breathing technique acts like Ventolin, as a bronchodilator. You only take headache tablets if you have a headache; if you don’t have a bronchospasm, why take a bronchodilator?’
Five-year-old Ben Lord-Smith, who lives in Canberra, Australia, was classed as a chronic asthmatic and put on an ever-increasing regimen of preventative drugs after his first life-threatening attack at 18 months. They failed to control the condition: he needed nebulisers day and night and had repeated hospital stays.
Yet within 3 days of trying the Buteyko method, Ben was off bronchodilators, and after seven months his GP was able to take him off all asthma medication.
‘To have that threat of death taken away is wonderful’, says his mother Sharon. ‘The drugs worried me – and why would you want to feed children drugs if you’ve got some other way? Now, if he gets occasional symptoms he does the Buteyko technique.’
It was anecdotal evidence like this that prompted the Australian Asthma Foundation to fund the first controlled clinical trial in Brisbane. The preliminary results, reported last month to the Australian Thoracic Society, showed that after 6 weeks, patients using the Buteyko method felt substantially better and had fewer symptoms and had been able to reduce their reliever medication by 90 percent.
Although the treatment has aroused some controversy in Australia, Jonathan Aitken said he was surprised. ‘There’s nothing subversive or dangerous about it. It’s just a different breathing method. I dare say it will ruffle the feathers of drug manufacturers and those very set in their ways, but the acid test is: “Does it work or not?” Well, it did for me.’