Breathing is something most people take for granted — except for those with severe asthma. Asthma narrows the airways in your lungs to the point where it can be hard to catch your breath.
Medicines like inhaled corticosteroids and beta-agonists open up your airways to help you breathe easier. Yet for some people with severe asthma, these medicines might not be enough to control symptoms. If you’re looking for something to supplement your drug treatment, you might want to try breathing exercises.
Until recently, doctors didn’t recommend breathing exercises for asthma — simply because there wasn’t enough evidence to show that they work. Yet more recent studies suggest these exercises might help improve your breathing and quality of life. Based on current evidence, breathing exercises may have value as an add-on therapy to medication and other standard asthma treatments.
Here are six different breathing exercises for asthma. Some of these techniques are more effective than others at relieving asthma symptoms.
1. Diaphragmatic breathing
The diaphragm is the dome-shaped muscle below your lungs that helps you breathe. In diaphragmatic breathing, you learn how to breathe from the region around your diaphragm, rather than from your chest. This technique helps to strengthen your diaphragm, slow your breathing, and decrease your body’s oxygen needs.
To practice diaphragmatic breathing, lie on your back with your knees bent and a pillow under your knees, or sit up straight in a chair. Place one hand flat on your upper chest and the other hand on your stomach. Breathe in slowly through your nose. The hand on your stomach should move, while the one on your chest remains still. Breathe out slowly through pursed lips. Keep practicing this technique until you’re able to breathe in and out without your chest moving.
2. Nasal breathing
Mouth breathing has been linked in studies to more severe asthma symptoms. The advantage to breathing through your nose is that it adds warmth and humidity to the air, which can help reduce asthma symptoms.
3. The Papworth method
The Papworth method has been around since the 1960s. It combines several different types of breathing with relaxation training techniques. It teaches you how to breathe slowly and steadily from your diaphragm and through your nose. You also learn how to control stress so it doesn’t affect your breathing.
4. Buteyko breathing
Buteyko breathing is named after its creator, Konstantin Buteyko, a Ukrainian doctor who developed the technique during the 1950s. The idea behind it is that people tend to hyperventilate — to breathe faster and more deeply than necessary. Rapid breathing can increase symptoms like shortness of breath in people with asthma.
Buteyko breathing uses a series of exercises to teach you how to breathe slower and deeper. Studies evaluating its effectiveness have shown mixed results. Buteyko may improve asthma symptoms and reduce the need for medication, though it doesn’t seem to improve lung function.
5. Pursed lip breathing
Pursed lip breathing is a technique used to relieve shortness of breath. To practice it, you first breathe in slowly through your nose with your mouth closed. Then, you purse your lips as if you were about to whistle. Finally, you breathe out through your pursed lips to a count of four.
6. Yoga breathing
Yoga is an exercise program that combines movement with deep breathing. A few small studies have found that using the same type of controlled deep breathing as in yoga may help improve asthma symptoms and lung function.
Should you try breathing exercises?
Learning these breathing exercises and practicing them regularly may help you gain more control over your asthma symptoms. They might also allow you to cut down on your use of asthma medication. Yet even the most effective breathing exercises can’t replace your asthma treatment entirely.
Talk to your doctor before trying any of these breathing exercises to make sure they’re safe for you. Ask your doctor to recommend a respiratory therapist who can teach you how to do these exercises safely and effectively.