Expert Answers: Buteyko Breathing for COPD
Here at COPD.net, we often get questions from the community that could benefit from an expert's answers. There are lots of conversations on our site and our Facebook page about different breathing strategies, and sometimes some very specific ones. So, we asked our experts:
What is Buteyko Breathing and have you seen anyone try or have success with it?
No. However, I have heard of it and wrote about it once. It’s a breathing technique that trains you how to breathe slower, assuming that higher respiratory rates are the cause of asthma. That’s about all I know about it. It’s another type of what is now called “alternative medicine.” Or what the Romans referred to as nostrum remedium, or medicine sold but not tested.
The Buteyko Breathing Method (BBM) is marketed to be a unique breathing therapy that uses breath control and breath-holding exercises to treat a wide array of health conditions. These conditions are believed to be connected to hyperventilation and low carbon dioxide. Buteyko breathing, for those who are unfamiliar with the method, is based on the concept that undiagnosed hyperventilation is the underlying cause of a wide variety of medical conditions, including asthma and COPD. The basic theory (as it might apply to these lung disorders) is that hyperventilation can lead to low carbon dioxide levels in the blood and a concomitant respiratory alkalosis which can cause the red blood cells to hold on to oxygen molecules more tightly than they would under normal conditions (Bohr effect). Ostensibly, by utilizing the technique, the blood alkalosis would be normalized and consequently increase the availability of oxygen to the tissues. The Buteyko method focuses on nasal breathing and incorporates breath control exercises that help a person reduce their breathing rate and volume. The method also utilizes CPAP machines, which are used to treat sleep apnea, and is reported to employ a jaw-strap or tape to keep the mouth closed during the night in order to facilitate nasal breathing.1-3
Reviewing the literature on this topic demonstrates there is little to no scientific evidence to support its claims. Interestingly enough, if one looks deeply into the physiologic explanation provided by the Buteyko Center, all the claims made are actually testable hypotheses. If Buteyko is correct in reporting that chronic hypoventilation can cure all or even any of the diseases reported on their website, the laboratory values associated with these diseases would become a recognizable pattern in lab results for physicians. Sadly, this turns out to be completely untrue. Finally, since our focus is chronic lung disease and even asthma, the BBM predicts that an asthmatic who begins to retain CO2 should have both their symptoms and pathophysiology improve through the use of the breathing method. In reality however, elevation of CO2 in a symptomatic asthmatic is one of the more ominous signs in medicine, and can even be a precursor to a worsening condition.1-3
After over 40 years of experience in the field of respiratory therapy, I have not seen or heard of anyone in this area (metropolitan New York) who has tried or had success with this breathing method. Based on research done to answer this question, I would caution our online membership to 'let the buyer beware'. Many claims of cures are made in the name of medicine. This would be a subject that I would strongly suggest you speak with your physician about before trying and/or committing any funds.1-3
The basic principle of the Buteyko Breathing Technique (BBT) is quite interesting and may hold some weight in aiding a person struggling with COPD. Essentially, the theory behind the method is based on the concept of nasal breathing rather than mouth-breathing, relaxation, and breath control. Therefore, it makes sense that these methods could be very beneficial to a person that suffers from COPD.
First, let’s consider mouth-breathing vs. nose-breathing. Nose breathing has a calming effect on the person performing it; it literally forces us to slow down our breathing. Since our nose acts as a filter to screen out impurities, breathing through it can have the added benefit of possibly avoiding certain triggers. In effect, if a person is able to master nose-breathing they’re actually using the BBT method to a great degree.
To be clear, originally it was suggested that by mastering the BBT method a person could be cured of many diseases. While there is no clear evidence to support that supposition, there is no question that taking control of how we breathe and in some cases, re-learning to breath, can have a tremendous impact on COPD.
It’s important to note that this should not be considered a contradiction of advice to use Pursed-Lip breathing as a technique when short of breath. Pursed Lip breathing is particularly useful to those with emphysema. The airways in someone with emphysema tend to “collapse” prematurely during exhalation. If a person puckers their lips as they’re exhaling it creates a little positive pressure in the airways that prevent them from collapsing – thus allowing a full exhalation and preventing all that air from becoming trapped in the lungs.
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