Editor’s Note: As part of our ongoing mission at ThirdAge to provide readers with reliable health information, we periodically give updates from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a division of the federal National Institutes of Health. Because there are many dubious claims made about “alternative remedies,” the NCCAM provides a valued counterweight in its scientifically based conclusions. Here, the agency’s evaluation of complementary treatments for asthma:
Most people are able to control their asthma with conventional therapies and by avoiding the substances – including allergens such as dust mites and pollutants like smoke - that can set off asthma attacks. Even so, some people turn to complementary health approaches in their efforts to relieve symptoms.
According to the 2002 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), which included a comprehensive survey on the use of complementary health approaches by Americans, asthma ranked 13th as a condition prompting use of complementary health approaches by adults; 1.1 percent of respondents (an estimated 788,000 adults) said they had used a complementary approach for asthma in the past year. In the 2007 NHIS survey, which included adults and children, asthma ranked eighth among conditions prompting use of complementary health approaches by children, but did not appear in a similar ranking for adults.
Despite the use of alternative treatments, reviewers who have assessed the research say there isn’t enough evidence to support the use of any complementary health approaches for the relief of asthma.
Several studies have looked at actual or true acupuncture—stimulation of specific points on the body with thin metal needles—for asthma. Although a few studies showed some reduction in medication use and improvements in symptoms and quality of life, the majority showed no difference between actual acupuncture and simulated or sham acupuncture on asthma symptoms. At this point, there is little evidence that acupuncture is an effective treatment for asthma.
There has been renewed patient interest in breathing exercises or retraining to reduce hyperventilation, regulate breathing, and achieve a better balance of carbon dioxide and oxygen in the blood. A review of seven randomized controlled trials found a trend toward improvement in symptoms with breathing techniques but not enough evidence for firm conclusions.
A 2011 study examined the placebo response in patients with chronic asthma and found that patients receiving a placebo (placebo inhaler and simulated acupuncture) reported significant improvement in symptoms such as chest tightness and perception of difficulty breathing. However, lung function did not improve in these patients. This is an important distinction because although the patients felt better, their risk for becoming very sick from untreated asthma was not lessened. The conclusion: If you have been diagnosed with asthma, use remedies recommended by your doctor, even if you feel relatively well.
But the NCCAM is currently funding studies to determine whether some other treatments might be effective. Among the subjects being researched:
*Mindfulness meditation practices might help manage symptoms or improve quality of life for people with asthma
*Vitamin E might reduce lung inflammation in mice and humans with allergic asthma
*Borage oil or Ginkgo biloba might reduce airway inflammation
*Under-the-tongue (sublingual) immunotherapy might build tolerance to substances that trigger allergic asthma.
The NCCAM cautions you not to use them in order to postpone seeing your health care provider about asthma-like symptoms or any health problem. Instead, see your health care provider to discuss a comprehensive medical treatment plan for your asthma. Conventional medical treatments are very effective in controlling asthma. Don’t replace these treatments with unproven products or practices.
Tell all your health care providers about any complementary health approaches you use. Give them a full picture of what you do to manage your health. This will help ensure coordinated and safe care. For tips about talking with your health care providers about complementary health approaches, click here.