Controlling asthma with the Buteyko breathing method


Like most nurses, I have cared for asthma sufferers in acute care and emergency situations, and there is no doubt that medication in these circumstances can be lifesaving.

However, in the long term, there is nothing to rival the effectiveness of the Buteyko breathing method in helping people to reduce or eliminate medication and to overcome and prevent symptoms.

The benefits of the Buteyko Method also include improved sleep, a better capacity for exercise, and a better quality of life. To be able to help people to overcome asthma so effectively without using of medication is a very rewarding experience.

In 1952, a Russian medical doctor, Konstantin Buteyko, observed that over-breathing or hyperventilation can cause asthma and other conditions. He observed that people became more ill as breathing increased. Professor Buteyko called the condition hidden hyperventilation, a condition which may not be obvious to the patient or the doctor. Unfortunately resting breathing pattern (minute volume) is rarely tested in asthma and allergy sufferers. So both doctor and patient may remain unaware of the condition.

He developed a technique which helps people to retrain their breathing towards normal levels. In 1990 the technique, now called the Buteyko breathing method, (pronounced But-_-k_) was brought to Australia by Buteyko Practitioner, Alexander Stalmatski, a former student of Professor Buteyko.1 Since then the method has spread to several other countries, including New Zealand, the US and the UK.

The technique which Buteyko developed has helped thousands of people throughout the world to overcome and prevent asthma. In simple terms, the Buteyko breathing method consists of a system of breathing analysis combined with education and breathing exercises which are taught in workshops.

Exercises are individualized for each workshop participant, depending on their medical history as well as their age. Children from the age of four upwards can learn the Buteyko breathing method. Children's exercises are different from the adults' exercises.

The Buteyko breathing method helps people to monitor and to understand their condition. Over time, the breathing exercises help people to reduce their breathing towards normal and, therefore, symptoms are reduced or eliminated.

People who do the workshops continue to use the medication they need while learning the technique.

Usually within a few days, they find that they need to use less symptomatic reliever medication such as salbutamol, or sometimes none at all, depending on the severity of the condition and the degree of over-breathing.

People who are on preventer medication such as inhaled steroids continue to take these in accordance with their doctor's prescription, but in time these can also be reduced or eliminated with their doctor's approval.

In a blinded randomised controlled trial of the Buteyko method conducted at the Mater Hospital in Brisbane, a group practising the Buteyko method reduced their bronchodilator medication by an average of over 90 per cent, and their inhaled steroids (preventer medication) by an average of 49 per cent within a three month period.2

While such results are impressive, more research needs to be done, and further research into the method is to be conducted this year in New Zealand and in the UK. Part of the problem in initiating research into the method is the lack of funds. There is no incentive for investment in research into the method by the drug companies, as the method does not involve a new drug but rather a reduction or elimination of existing medication.

For more information call (03) 9533 1452.

Hyperventilation - what happens?

When a person hyperventilates, they exhale excessive amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2). The optimal level of CO2 in the air sacs is around 6.5 per cent. If the CO2 level falls below this due to hyperventilation, there is a gradual alkaline reaction in the lungs.

When alveolar CO2 is lowered, this gradual alkaline reaction in the lungs is carried through to the blood and total blood CO2 will decrease also.

Oxygen in the blood is carried by means of a haemoglobin (Hb) molecule which is part of a red cell.

When CO2 is low due to over-breathing, the oxygen is bound tighter than normal to the Hb molecule due to a chemical bond. For this bond to loosen, CO2 levels need to increase and the blood pH needs to become less alkaline. As blood pH decreases the Hb/O2 bond decreases and therefore, more oxygen is available to the tissues.

This phenomenon, called the Verigo-Bohr effect (or oxygen-haemoglobin disassociation curve), is described in most physiology textbooks, but many health care professionals are not familiar with it. When CO2 levels rise to normal, oxygen is more readily released from the haemoglobin and it can then oxygenate the cells and tissues of the body.

1 Stalmatski, A. (1997), Freedom From Asthma Buteyko's revolutionary treatment, Kyle Cathie Ltd. London.
2 Bowler, S.D. Green, A., Mitchell, C. (1998), Buteyko breathing techniques in asthma: a blinded randomized controlled trial, MJA, Vol. 169, 7/21 December, pp 575-578
3 Ameisen, P.J. Dr., (1997) Every Breath You Take, Lansdowne, Sydney, pp 87-105

Mary Birch is a Buteyko Practitioner, Nurse Educator and Researcher.

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