Breath Retraining in the Management of Asthma
by Barbara Benagh
What Is Asthma?
Asthma comes from the Greek word for "panting". My doctor described it as a reversible, chronic lung disease characterized by coughing, wheezing and inflamed airways. Though asthmatics always have some degree of inflammation, an asthma attack or "flare" occurs when some trigger provokes increased swelling, mucus, coughing, and a tightening of the smooth muscle around the airways. As airways close, breathing becomes shallow, fast, and difficult. Symptoms can be mild, severe, or even fatal.
This is the clinical explanation, but it hardly conveys the terror of an experience that leaves even the strongest person feeling out of control and helpless.
Upon my doctor's diagnosis, I became one of the 17 million asthma sufferers in America. Figures from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services are sobering: Six percent of children under five have asthma (a 160 percent increase since 1980), and older children miss 10 million school days each year. Asthma accounted for nearly two million emergency room visits last year; over 6 billion dollars was spent on asthma care. According to the World Health Organization, the situation isn't much better throughout the industrialized world. In Australia, for instance, 1 in 8 children have asthma. Annually, there are over 180,000 deaths worldwide from the condition, and asthma seems to have become a more serious disease in recent years. Researchers are scrambling to figure out why.
Pollution is often cited as a cause, and with good reason: airborne and environmental pollutants can trigger asthma attacks but it doesn't fully explain the epidemic since pollution rates are declining even as asthma continues its upward climb.
Other scientists theorize that perhaps we are too clean! Researchers at Columbia University are trying to determine if the important sensitizing of the immune system that should take place early in life has been reduced by modern hygiene, leading to later hyperactive immune reactions that contribute to the occurrence of asthma.
Especially intriguing is the recent theory that the very drugs that revolutionized asthma care are partly responsible for the increase in overall incidence, and especially for the growing mortality rate. This hypothesis is particularly compelling since the current epidemic indeed began at about the same time modern asthma drugs went on the market.