More than two million Australians now suffer from asthma. It's usually controlled with drugs but we're going to look at an alternative treatment it's called Buteyko, which is all about learning to breathe.
Six weeks ago, 10-year-old Trey O'Sullivan often missed soccer practice. He has chronic asthma and took two kinds of medication every day. That was until his mum, Janine, had him learn the Buteyko method of breathing.
"He just looks so well now. After six weeks of doing the exercises, he looks like a different child," Janine says.
Trey's teacher was Buteyko practitioner Paul O'Connell. He says Trey's dramatic improvement is typical: "More than 90 percent of people who do the Buteyko course are off all their reliever medications within a week of starting the course," he says.
Whereas many asthmatics stay on medication for their entire lives.
The whole Buteyko phenomenon was started 40 years ago by a Russian doctor called Konstantin Buteyko. He believed the key to controlling asthma was to control your breathing.
But first, what is asthma and how does it affect your breathing? It's an incurable disease where the airways to the lungs are permanently inflamed. They become sensitive and react to environmental triggers like pollen or cigarette smoke, this reaction causes coughing, wheezing and breathlessness.
Professor Christine Jenkins, who heads the Co-operative Research Centre for Asthma and Airways, says if these episodes repeat themselves often enough, people with asthma can develop a more persistent shortness of breath. "That comes because their airways have progressively and slowly narrowed over a long period of time," he says.
So can the Buteyko method fix those narrowed airways? We're going to find out with the help of Colette Jones, a chronic asthmatic since the age of five.
"When I have an asthma attack I find it hard to breathe out and I feel like something's gripping me around the chest and I can't breathe out," Colette says. "Then I find that escalates to where I start to panic."
One of those attacks landed her in hospital a week ago, so Colette's keen to try Buteyko and report back to us. But we also need an independent evaluation of her progress, so we send her to Alfred Hospital in Melbourne.
Colette's lung function is tested with a spirometer, which measures how much and how fast you blow out air from your lungs.
Respiratory physiologist Dr Bruce Thompson comes in to assess Colette's readings: "The lung function test that we've just done is all normal, which is not necessarily unexpected, even though you do have asthma. But you are adequately treated at the moment."
Colette's lungs are right on the average for her age and size because of the drugs she takes. But there's lot of room for improvement. Can Buteyko do it?
"Anything that reduces my asthma and Ventolin intake would be great," Colette says.
But will she be able to throw away her inhalers forever?
Practicing the Buteyko method does look silly, but the key thing is learning to breathe through your nose. Why is nasal breathing so important? You take in less air and breathe out less carbon dioxide.
"The more carbon dioxide that we retain in our lungs, the better it is for our health. Because that facilitates more release of oxygen from haemoglobin in our blood. So we get oxygen to all the cells of our body," O'Connell says.
But it doesn't come naturally so Butyko students have to learn to reduce their breathing even while they're active.
It's now 36 hours since Colette began the course and bit by bit, she's getting the hang of it. She spent one night with tape over her mouth to force her to breathe through her nose.
So is it working?
"I found I only had to take my Ventolin twice during the day rather than the usual 18 times."
From 18 to two inhalations in one day! That's an incredible improvement.
After a week into her Buteyko training, is Colette now a convert?
"I'm really impressed. If it continues this way then it's given me a whole new lease on life. I've got so used to asthma I've always thought I'd have to live with it," she says.
As far as Colette's concerned, Buteyko's passed the test with flying colours, but is it curing her asthma?
It's back to Alfred Hospital for a second lung function test. Last time, Colette's lungs were functioning just on normal for her age and size.
This time, the reading shows only a very slight improvement.
"We had expected from last time that it might not have changed a whole lot and it seems to be the case with our lung functioning measurements so far," Dr Thompson says.
Colette's results are in line with other scientific studies such as one conducted by asthma expert Professor Jenkins. She found Buteyko reduced drug use by 80 percent, but had no effect on the underlying inflammation.
"The measures we made of inflammation, the measures we made of airway irritability and lung function did not change," she says.
The good news is that Buteyko helps asthmatics significantly cut down on medication and it helps relieve those debilitating symptoms.
"For a lot of people it's a struggle to make the bed or climb up stairs," O'Connell says. "To do relatively simple tasks is very difficult for people who have problems with their breathing. And if they can achieve those things after Buteyko and maintain their lung function, because it's not going to get worse but either going to be maintained or get better, then that's all we're looking for."
While doctors might not think it's a miracle cure, if you're one of the growing number of Australians seeking relief from asthma symptoms, then Buteyko method might be worth a try.
Asthma is the most common chronic condition in Western society. Would you know what to do if someone had a severe attack in front of you?
What should you do if someone has a severe asthma attack?
- Make sure they take reliever medicine.
- Keep them calm and encourage them to breathe slowly.
- Don't let them lie down as this constricts breathing.
- If the reliever medicine doesn't help within 10 minutes or they're struggling to breathe, then call for medical help.
Buteyko Institute of Breathing & Health
Toll free number: 1800 001 700
Postal: PO Box 2409, Fitzroy VIC 3065
Woolcock Institute of Medical Research
Phone: (02) 9767-6712 or 9767-5123 (Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays in the mornings) or (02) 9515-7928 (Wednesday and Friday afternoons)
Fax: (02) 9767-7605