How to breathe easy

PETER LOUISSON
Last updated 12:46 12/12/2012

Nothing about cars or auto technology this time. Time to discuss a matter that's of some relevance to about one in seven Kiwis. For even if you don't suffer from asthma yourself, you're bound to know at least someone who wheezes and carries an inhaler with them at all times.

I started wheezing about the same time I got my first pair of glasses. One wonders about the connection, given that the cause of asthma remains unclear. Sometimes asthma symptoms disappear in later teenage years. Not in my case; guess a brief dalliance with smoking wasn't so smart. Nowadays, I can't run anywhere or do any form of vigorous exercise without first taking a puff of ventolin to prevent wheezing.

At least I couldn't until recently, which is the point of this piece. What seems to be asthma may not necessarily be asthma alone; something else may be making the condition worse, and this proved to be the case for me. Bear in mind, this is just anecdotal evidence - that is, one person's experience. It doesn't necessarily mean your or anyone else's symptoms will respond the same way as mine; your mileage may vary.

However, here's the background. My breathing problems had got progressively worse over the years, which I had put down to ageing. My family doctor had me on two inhalers, one a preventer and one a reliever. I had been told to use the reliever as needed but over the years the preventer seemed to become less effective. Asthma symptom control is considered good if you need to use the relief inhaler (Ventolin) no more than a few times per week. I was needing it a few times a day and was also requiring a long-acting form of reliever on a daily basis. The breathlessness was gradually getting worse.

Time to visit the GP again and get this sorted, as the symptoms were genuinely interfering with quality of life. My family doctor was clued into the nature of my problem almost straight away, noticing excessive upper chest movement and mouth breathing, and she suggested I visit "Breathing Works" to sort out my breathing disorder. Which I did, online at www.breathingworks.com. After trolling around the site I ordered the book Dynamic Breathing: How to Manage Your Asthma.

Dynamic Breathing book

This should be essential reading for anyone who has been diagnosed with mild asthma and wishes to improve their symptom control, and also minimise their reliance on preventer and reliever medication.

The book discusses the disordered physiology associated with mouth breathing, which we will only touch upon briefly here. When you exercise, you shift from nose to mouth breathing because extra oxygen is needed. Those with shortness of breath have a tendency to mouth breathe because they feel as if they aren't getting enough air. When mouth breathing becomes habitual, subtle changes occur in gas physiology because too much carbon dioxide is being breathed out; overbreathing leads to mild hyperventilation syndrome. Symptoms include a feeling of not being able to get quite enough air, numbness and tingling, chronic tiredness and excessive yawning, among others. See here for more.  

Fortunately, there is a simple remedy: retrain yourself to breathe through your nose and ensure you are breathing efficiently by using the diaphragm instead of upper chest muscles. For some, like those with allergies or sinusitis, nose breathing may not be easy. For the rest it is simply a matter of closing your mouth and breathing as you first did at birth. After a few weeks, nose breathing again becomes second nature, even when you're asleep.

To shift to diaphragmatic breathing, think of air entering your lungs abdominally. Sounds absurd, but concentrate on your belly expanding as you breathe in, and contracting as you exhale. You cannot do this without using your diaphragm as the primary breathing engine.

Asthmatics who treat their disordered breathing often report a marked improvement in symptoms, and an associated reduction in the need for rescue medication. I can now go for weeks without needing rescue ventolin, and that includes sometimes forgetting to take it before exercise.

Is my asthma cured? Probably not. I still need to take the preventive medication daily but other symptoms associated with mouth breathing seem much improved as well. I suffer less from acid reflux now and I seem to be able to swallow food more easily. Many others who have sought the advice of Breathing Works report a similar improvement in symptom control after a refresher course on correct breathing techniques.

Back to motoring matters next time. Meantime, have a pleasant holiday break and travel safely.

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