Posted by: Integra Massage | May 28, 2011

From shark cages to rib cages: alternative treatment for asthma

The human rib cage (Source: Gray's Anatomy of ...

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Whats the difference between a shark cage and a rib cage?

Well before I answer that question, just a reminder that this month is Asthma Awareness Month 2011.  So here are a few thoughts on alternative treatment for asthma.

Asthma is so common these days (around 10% of the population perhaps) that we almost take it for granted that people carry inhalers around with them. So often at a first consultation with a client will mention asthma as if it is incidental, just another facet of them like their height or hair colour.  Its easy to forget that asthma can be highly debilitating and distressing or even fatal.

Common as asthma is, medical science still struggles to understand its causes and mechanisms.  The problem is that the collection of signs and symptoms (inflammation and constriction of the air passages in the lungs) we call “asthma” are not one single disease, but the end state of a wide range of pathways of health imbalance, in which constitution, lifestyle, allergies, environmental toxins, and other seemingly unrelated diseases may all play a part.

Conventional treatment is focused on “managing” the condition through steriodal antiinflammatory drugs and bronchiodilators.  Such treatments seem to be fairly effective for about half of cases in keeping asthma under control but have side effects and lock a the patient into long term drug dependency.  They do nothing to improve the condition overall.

What does alternative medicine have to offer?

There are herbs such as Ephedra and Chinese Skullcap which have established use as anti-inflammatories and bronchiodilators. These herbs have a similar action in relieving symptoms to drugs but are milder and slower in action and usually free from unwanted side effects. Supplements such as pine bark/grapeseed extract and Black Seed oil also have a track record and some research evidence supporting their use to relieve the symptoms of asthma.

But a professional herbalist will want to go further than palliating symptoms.  A herbalist will view asthma as a break down in the ability of the body to balance and regulate itself and will seek to remedy the root causes of asthma by improving their client’s overall health and rebalancing dietary, lifestyle and emotional factors.  Tonic or adaptogenic herbs like Rhodiola and medicinal mushrooms Reishi and Cordyceps appear to strengthen the body as a whole and increase its ability to adapt to stresses such as potential allergens or toxins.

Another alternative approach is exemplified by the work of the Russian asthma pioneer Butekyo. Butekyo believed that asthma was the body’s defensive response to hyperventilation.  Hyperventilation (rapid and shallow breathing) over oxygenates and lowers carbon dioxide levels in the blood and upsets blood PH levels with a wide range of harmful consequences. Butekyo believed that the bronchial constriction in asthma was the body’s desperate attempt to bring breathing back under control.  His treatment method involves retaining the patient’s breathing technique, with special exercises.

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence and several clinical trials suggesting that Butekyo method benefits asthma sufferers.  However there is doubt in the scientific community about his theory.  There is little evidence that Butekyo method improves the key medical markers, such as peak flow rate  for asthma despite the fact that many people find it helpful.  I think this is a key point.  If asthma sufferers can live fuller and more comfortable lives by using Butekyo or similar techniques, then the method is of value and it may be that the medical markers are not entirely appropriate.

Studies have shown that other breathing techniques such as Yoga and Tai Chi can also benefit asthma.  Many exercises within the Lian Gong system that I use with clients are also of potential benefit.  To me the great value of these approaches is that they give the asthma suffer control rather than trapping them in drug dependancy.

Butekyo’s theory may not be completely valid but it raises the interesting idea that asthma is a defensive response by the body to a stimulus that  poses a threat.  A potentially useful way to look at many types of symptoms, not as bad in themselves, but as the body’s emergency response to a harmful situation.  Pain is an obvious example of this.

I call this emergency response the “defensive adaptive response” and view it as a short term “knee jerk “reaction by the body trying to contain the threat.  When the defensive adaptive response is triggered inappropriately, is amplified to an extreme or becomes established as a chronic pattern, it can become a disease state with harmful long term consequences.

It would seem to me that the asthmatic defensive response could be triggered by a wide range factors on which over oxygenation is just one. Pollen and other allergens, pollutants may be others. Even temperature changes may provoke a reaction is lungs weakened and sensitised by a long term infection.   From my point of view Butekyo was looking in the right direction, but with too narrow a focus.

The tightening of the airways which characterises asthma is controlled by the autonomic or involuntary nervous system.  In some ways it is no different to any deep unconcious tension in the body.  I believe there is scope to approach asthma  by encouraging the body to release the constricting tension and retraining its response to the stimulus which triggers the constricting defensive response.

Breathing exercises such as Lian Gong and tai chi are essential here but it may surprise some readers to discover that massage and bodywork have a role to play.  I have been treating client’s with asthma for many years and have repeatedly seem significant improvements.

Acupressure and its western equivalent Neuromuscular Technique (NMT) work by identifying and stimulating points on the skin and in the muscles which trigger beneficial responses in the nervous system.  Typically this will involve the relaxation of local muscular tension or the retuning of the nervous system as a whole away from a defensive adaptive response towards a relaxed recuperative state.

Of course you can’t get in and massage the lungs directly but there are many places on the surface of the body which appear to have a reflex effect on the lungs themselves.  What I find with many clients with asthma is that they have a lot of tight hardened tissue around the middle and upper spine, the shoulder and and chest with many sore tender spots.  The rib cage itself feels inflexible and ridged. Typically too their breathing patterns are shallow and restricted with little movement in the diaphragm.

As I work with a combination of pressure techniques, stretches and mobilisations, breathing gradually deepens and the rib cage returns to its natural supple flexible state.  Clients’ subjective responses are often marked and immediate, expressing delight in being able to take the first really good deep breaths they have taken in years. The improvement in asthma symptoms tends to be slow and gradual.  In combination with with other holistic methods such as herbs and breathing exercises changes can be expected over six months to a year of regular treatment.

So this brings me back to my starting point.

A rib cage is a soft, supple, flexible basket which supports the lungs and gives them space to work properly.

A shark cage is a ridged hard box which defends divers from attacks by sharks.

So many people seem to have got shark cages instead of rib cages.  My job is to turn them back into rib cages.


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