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Mar 16, 2015

Massage Therapy Represses Asthma

by William Mathis 

Asthma almost killed me when I was five. I woke up scared and unable to breathe – which also raised my parents’ stress level dramatically. Several ER visits later, they knew something had to change.

My asthma led us to Dr. Weiner’s office. His prescription was my first introduction to the medical capacity of massage: along with drugs and allergy shots, he recommended my parents do percussion (aka “tapotement”) to help break up my lung congestion and help me breathe better. I liked the percussion massage because it felt good and helped me relax, while my asthma medicines made me feel anxious and edgy. It was a powerful early lesson about the therapeutic potential of massage.

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Asthma is a serious issue, and nearly twenty million people suffer moderate to severe disability as a result. The causes are varied, but generally thought to be a combination of genetic and environmental factors that create chronic inflammation of the bronchi. When these airways constrict, the exchange of life-giving gases is restricted.

Since every one of the body’s trillions of cells needs to absorb oxygen and release carbon dioxide, asthma can seriously affect the body’s homeostatic balance. In addition to difficulty breathing, this can result in a variety of other health problems, including fatigue, anxiety, decreased mental clarity, and chronic muscle tension. Fortunately, massage therapy can help, with important ramifications for self care and health education as well.

One major factor that exacerbates asthma symptoms is stress. Breathing difficulty creates anxiety, and anxiety can make for labored breathing – the very definition of “vicious cycle”. Many asthma sufferers can relate to that panicky, breathless feeling that sent five-year old me to the ER. Some people will have anxiety attacks and/or hyperventilate. Relaxation-oriented massage modalities stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system and trigger the body’s relaxation response, which helps the airways and breathing muscles to relax as well. Studies even show that teaching mothers to massage asthmatic children reduces the child’s symptoms as well as the mother’s stress!

Like all movement in the body, breathing is a function of muscle contraction. The major breathing muscle is the respiratory diaphragm, but it gets important assistance from a variety of other muscles, including the intercostals, scalenes, and quadratus lumborum. This means that, in addition to strain in the chest and torso, asthma can contribute to chronic muscle tension in the neck and low back – which can in turn lead to everything from chronic headaches to poor posture.

Stress relief, decreasing muscle tension, and restoring postural balance – major indications for massage therapy that can seriously benefit asthma sufferers. But that’s just the beginning! Since our scope of practice entitles us to do health education, consider teaching your asthmatic clients how to consciously breathe from the abdomen, and show them acupressure for stress relief and better breathing (Li 20, LU 1, PC 6 and CV 17 are personal favorites). And if you experience asthma symptoms, then make these personal habits as well.

Breath is Life… and we have tools to help the world breathe a little easier!