Asthma is a common condition that causes breathing difficulties. There is no cure, but various treatment options exist. Some people claim that breathing exercises may also be helpful. However, there is no evidence that such exercises can help children with asthma and only very weak evidence that they can benefit adults.

Asthma affects close to 8% of people in the United States.

In response to triggering factors, asthma causes the airways to become inflamed and swollen. The resultant swelling can make it difficult for a person to breathe and even be life threatening.

Many people with asthma, therefore, are keen to find safe interventions that reduce their symptoms.

Some individuals have claimed that different types of breathing exercises can improve asthma symptoms. This article investigates whether the science supports these claims.

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As a recent review explains, some people have proposed that a variety of breathing exercises can help people manage the symptoms of asthma. These include:

  • The Buteyko method: Some people claim that this method, in which a person breathes slowly and gently through the nose rather than the mouth, can reduce asthma symptoms by lessening airway sensitivity. Breathing through the nose keeps the air in the airways warm and moist.
  • The Papworth method: Physical therapists sometimes teach the Papworth method, which involves relaxation training and breathing through the nose and diaphragm.
  • Yogic breathing: Some practitioners claim that breathing-based forms of yoga, which some refer to as Sudarshan Kriya, can improve symptoms of asthma, as well as those of many other conditions, including depression.
  • Diaphragmatic breathing: Diaphragmatic breathing involves engaging the muscles of the diaphragm, abdominals, and stomach when breathing to move more air in and out of the lungs.

The rationale behind such proposals is understandable. Theoretically, breathing exercises can help people control the manner in which they breathe, such as their breathing rate.

It can be difficult for people with asthma to control their breathing, which can lead to a range of health issues. It is, therefore, natural to wonder whether breathing exercises might help these individuals control hyperventilation during asthma attacks.

However, there is little evidence that such interventions are helpful.

Scientists have not conducted many studies to test the efficacy of these methods. Moreover, the few scientific findings that do exist are conflicting.

In adults

A 2020 meta-analysis reviewed 22 studies, which involved a total of 2,880 participants. These studies investigated a variety of breathing techniques for asthma. The participants’ asthma ranged from moderate to severe. The authors of this meta-analysis tentatively concluded that breathing exercises:

  • may help people with asthma enjoy short-term improvements in quality of life
  • do not seem to help relieve asthma symptoms
  • may allow people to improve symptoms of hyperventilation

The authors of the study note that much of the evidence included in the review was of moderate-to-very-poor quality, though.

In children

A 2016 meta-analysis also looked at the evidence supporting the use of breathing exercises in children with asthma.

The authors investigated three studies with a total of 112 participants. Again, the studies investigated a number of different breathing exercises.

The meta-analysis found no evidence that any of the breathing exercises improved quality of life or reduced the symptoms of asthma.

However, the authors note that it was difficult to assess the effects of the exercises because the reviewed studies were investigating them alongside other treatment options. In addition, these studies tended to report their methodologies and results quite poorly, making the data unreliable.

Scientists need to conduct further research on the use of breathing techniques for asthma if they are to determine their effectiveness.

Aside from taking medication when appropriate, people with asthma may be able to manage their asthma symptoms through other methods.

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) provides a useful summary of such nonmedicinal interventions.

In the first instance, people with asthma can attempt to avoid their asthma triggers, if possible. Many different factors can trigger asthma attacks, including:

  • stress
  • some infections, such as influenza
  • some medicines, such as aspirin
  • tobacco smoke
  • air pollution
  • cold or stormy weather

Allergens are also common asthma triggers. The NHLBI’s Asthma Action Plan lists the following allergens as possible asthma triggers:

  • animal dander
  • dust mites
  • rodents
  • cockroaches
  • mold, both indoor and outdoor
  • pollen

Keeping a clean, mold-free home, as well as regularly washing the hands and face to remove pollen, could help keep asthma attacks at bay.

The NHLBI also notes that because obesity can make asthma worse, maintaining a moderate body weight could be helpful as well.

Asthma remains an incurable disease that can affect people’s quality of life.

This is especially true if the condition is severe, when it can affect a person’s ability to perform typical daily tasks and activities and make it necessary to take time off work or school.

In some countries, asthma accounts for 1 death per 100,000 people. Individuals with a long smoking history and those aged 40 years or older are among those at higher risk.

Asthma is a common condition that can have significant effects on a person’s quality of life.

Some people with asthma may be interested in trying breathing exercises as a way to manage their condition.

However, it is important to remember that strong, reliable evidence to support this therapeutic approach is currently lacking.