A chronic disease of the airways that makes breathing difficult, people with asthma often have trouble getting sufficient amounts of oxygen into their lungs. While modern medicine has produced incredible improvements in asthma symptom treatments, its inadequacy is apparent in the numbers of people still struggling to breathe. By studying and administering bodywork based on Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), therapists have an additional tool for improving their asthmatic clients’ respiratory health.
Affecting approximately 10 percent of children in the United States, 22 million Americans and causing nearly two million emergency room visits every year, asthma is a serious disease. As the most common chronic condition among children in the United States, massage therapists are highly likely to see clients who are living with asthma.
An involuntary and absolutely mandatory bodily function, many of us take breathing for granted. In contrast, people living with asthma are typically grateful for every step closer towards relaxed and easy breathing. The following are three prominent issues that asthmatics must contend with:
- Obstruction – During normal breathing, the bands of muscle surrounding the airways are relaxed, allowing air to move freely. With asthma, allergy-causing substances and environmental triggers cause tightening of these bands, restricting the free flow of air. In addition to causing a person to feel short of breath, the air that moves through these tightened airways causes a whistling sound known as wheezing. Fortunately, this airway narrowing is reversible, a feature that distinguishes asthma from other lung diseases such as bronchitis or emphysema.
- Inflammation – Contributing to the long-term damage that asthma can cause to the lungs, many people with asthma typically have inflamed, red and swollen bronchial tubes. This explains why physicians almost always address bronchial inflammation as part of an asthma management program.
- Irritability – The airways of people with asthma are extremely sensitive and irritable. Asthmatics’ airways tend to overreact and narrow due to even the slightest triggers such as pollen, animal dander, dust or fumes.
Allergies, chronic bronchiole infection and hyperirritability of the airway tubes are the most common causes of asthma.
Traditional Chinese Medicine
Originating in China, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is a holistic medical system combining acupuncture, Chinese herbs, nutrition, massage and movement exercises (known as Tai Chi or Qi Gong) to bring the body into balance. Although practitioners of TCM have been treating asthma for thousands of years, it only became globally recognized in the late 1970s. This recognition occurred in 1979 when the World Health Organization listed respiratory tract diseases, including asthma and bronchitis, as conditions benefited by acupuncture, one of the divisions of TCM. Although the majority of research touting the effectiveness of TCM focuses on acupuncture and Chinese herbs, TCM based-massage is steadily gaining ground.
A prospective, randomized study that involved eight weeks of treatment at Chang Gung Memorial Hospital in Taiwan included acupressure (a style of massage based on TCM) to evaluate ways for improving asthma symptoms. In this published study, adult patients with chronic asthma were given either:
- acupuncture with standard treatment
- acupressure with standard treatment
- standard treatment alone
By using several scales to evaluate respiratory symptoms, the researchers concluded that both acupressure and acupuncture significantly improved the quality of life in patients with chronic asthma on medical treatment.
Acupressure and Asthma Attacks
Similar to Western medicine’s treatment of asthma, TCM theory differentiates between asthma attacks and the periods between attacks. During an attack, the situation is considered to be an acute or excessive condition. Between attacks, the body is considered to be in a chronic or deficient condition:
- Excessive – The objective of a TCM practitioner during an attack is to disperse the excess and stop the attack. Asthma attacks are characterized by wind, which combines with a cold or heat pathogen that lodges in the bronchi and causes bronchospasms. Since bronchospasms result from over-stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system, acupressure points known to calm the spirit are used because they relax the parasympathetic nervous system.
While point suggestions for an excessive condition include Conception Vessel 17, Pericardium 6, Heart 7, Spleen 6, Liver 3, Lung 10 and Ear Sympathetic – prolonged attacks that don’t respond to bronchodilators are a medical emergency! A bodyworker with a client having an asthma attack who is not relieved by his/her medications should only consider acupressure while en route to a hospital or while waiting for an ambulance.
- Deficient – Since TCM scholars claim that the lung and kidney energies combine forces to produce respiration, a weakness in either of these organ systems can contribute to asthma. Although difficulty upon inspiration is indicative of a kidney energy weakness and difficulty upon expiration is indicative of a lung energy weakness, tonifying both of these organ systems helps those with asthma.
Point suggestions for tonifying a deficient condition include Kidney 27, Lung 1, Lung 7, Bladder 13, Bladder 23, Stomach 36, Stomach 40, Kidney 3 and the extra point Ding Chuan. In addition, some of the points used during an attack are also beneficial in between attacks. These include Conception Vessel 17, Pericardium 6, Liver 3 and Lung 10.
As the number of people managing asthma continues to rise, practitioners who can help reduce symptom severity become increasingly in demand. When knowledgeable about the pathology of asthma and in possession of the skills that encourage relaxed and easy breathing, a massage therapist can be a major factor in improving the quality of their asthmatic clients’ lives.