Q Since WDDTY last covered the Buteyko breathing technique for asthma (vol 7 no 2), has there been any further research on this method? - H.F.M. Sopher, Essex
A Russian doctor Konstantin Buteyko developed his breathing technique during the 1950s after observing the breathing patterns of hundreds of hospitalised patients. He eventually concluded that overbreathing, or hyperventilation, which reduces the body's carbon dioxide levels, could be the cause of disease. He therefore developed a shallow-breathing technique, which reduced his own chronic headaches and rapid heartbeat, and which he claimed was the answer to other conditions such as asthma, heart problems and stomach ulcers.
The very first trial using his method was carried out in 1968 in Russia, and involved 46 patients with a range of disorders. After trying out the technique, 44 were supposedly 'cured', even from diseases such as cancer.
Since then, good independent research has been thin on the ground, although what little there has been has produced impressive results. One study, carried out in New Zealand, tested the technique vs a placebo in 38 asthma patients. Those in the Buteyko group halved their use of steroids, and reduced their use of beta-2-agonists by 85 per cent. In the control (placebo) group, steroid use remained the same, while beta-2 usage was reduced by 37 per cent (N Z Med J, 2003; 116: U710).
In another study of 90 asthma patients, the Buteyko method was set against a yoga breathing technique and a 'dummy' technique. After six months, symptoms were unchanged in the yoga breathing and 'dummy' groups, but were reduced in the Buteyko group, which also reduced its use of a bronchodilator by two puffs a day (Thorax, 2003; 58: 674-9).
Yet another study involved 36 asthma sufferers who performed the Buteyko technique at home, after studying a video that introduced the basic methods, while others were given a video that taught a 'dummy' technique. After a month, the Buteyko practitioners reported a significant improvement in their quality of life as well as a lowered use of a bronchodilator (J Asthma, 2000; 37: 557-64).
A similar result was reported in a study at South Brisbane's Mater Adult Hospital, where 39 asthma patients either practised the Buteyko or a 'dummy' method. After four months, the Buteyko group had stopped hyperventilating and were less dependent on the use of beta-2-agonist drugs. The researchers also noted a continuing trend towards a reduced usage of inhaled steroids and a better quality of life (Med J Aust, 1998; 169: 575-8).
Some researchers wondered if the lack of carbon dioxide was, as Buteyko surmised, the root cause of so many diseases. Therefore, they tested the theory on patients who were all sufferers of exercise-induced asthma.
During exercise, the participants breathed in air enriched with carbon dioxide, but this did not reduce or prevent their asthma attacks. The researchers concluded that, whatever the benefits of Buteyko, they may well have nothing to do with levels of carbon dioxide in the body - at least, not in those who suffer from EIAs (Med J Aust 2001; 174: 72-4).