A breathing technique similar to that which allows Russian cosmonauts to survive a long time in outer space is being used to help asthma sufferers in Australia and New Zealand.
An Australian study has shown that the breathing exercises are successful, allowing asthma patients to reduce medication by 90 per cent and significantly improve their symptoms.
The Buteyko technique was developed in the Soviet Union in the 1950’s. The technique, used to treat asthma, emphysema, and some other illnesses, has been an integral part of the Russian health svstem since 1981 but unheard of in the West until the end of the decade.
Introduced to Australia in 1990, doctors are said to be surprised that breathing exercises can achieve results that medication often cannot.
Russell Stark, one of only two trained Buteyko practitioners teaching the technique in New Zealand, said more than 700 New Zealanders were now using the breathing technique for asthma control. The technique has been available here only in the last six months.
Mr Stark and his son both suffered from asthma. Before learning the Buteyko technique at the age of 14, his son’s asthma condition was chronic. On high levels of medication (Ventolin inhaler and steroids), he was unable to cycle even 200m and completed his homework while connected to a nebuliser.
Now 17, he is able to run, competes in athletics, and is “full of confidence”.
The technique teaches hypoventilation exercises. The natural reaction to an asthma attack is to try to breath more, but with the Buteyko technique patients learn to breath less. Through breathing less, patients “saturate” their bodies with carbon dioxide. This lessens muscle constriction, and slows down breathing to a more normal rate.
Patients using the method learn how to overcome an attack, and by regularly using the exercises can learn to prevent attacks from occurring.
Mr Stark said patients using the technique were never told to stop taking prescribed medications. “We ask people to stay on their preventative medications but to try (the Buteyko 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.”
Usually the technique worked, and once patients found it worked for them, it was suggested they talk to their doctor about coming off preventative medicines.
About one in four people in New Zealand had respiratory problems, he said. More than 100,000 people were on medication for asthma or breathing related problems.
People using the Butevko technique for asthma had reported “tremendous improvements” in their quality of life, he said. They slept better, felt less tired, and more relaxed did not have to worry about medication, allergies disappeared and they were less prone to infection.
“Within a week their pulse-rate dropped about 20 points. It is difficult for conventional medicine to accept that such good results can be had from something that is just a breathing technique.”
Health professionals had been slow to pick up on the success of the technique but asthma patients who had used it were living proof that it worked, he said.