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Tuesday, August 18, 1998 Published at 10:22 GMT 11:22 UK


The breathless way to 'cure' asthma

Buteyko teaches asthma sufferers to breathe less

See Buteyko in action
The National Health Service (NHS) could save a fortune in drug costs if asthmatics used a simple breathing technique, according to claims made in a BBC TV programme.

The Buteyko method is based on the observation that most asthmatics over-breathe, or hyperventilate.

Sufferers are taught to slow their breathing and even tape their mouths at night to reduce the amount of air going into their lungs.

Supporters of Buteyko, which was developed in Russia, say it can dramatically reduce a patient's reliance on inhalers and steroids, the traditional way of dealing with the condition.

Drugs bill

Dr Gerald Spence, a Glasgow GP, told the QED Science programme that Buteyko had had a major impact on his practice.

[ image: Patients even tape their mouths at night]
Patients even tape their mouths at night
He started teaching the breathing technique after the expensive drug treatments currently on the market appeared to make no difference to his patients.

"The simple fact is that 34 patients, prior to Buteyko, were costing £15,000 for their asthma medication," he said. "After Buteyko, they were costing £5,000.

"That's a reduction of two-thirds in their drugs bill. If this was extended to the rest of the country, very significant savings could be made."

Professional scepticism

Not all of the medical profession is convinced that Buteyko is quite the revolution being claimed.

[ image: Sacha Stolmatski: The West must run more trials]
Sacha Stolmatski: The West must run more trials
The technique has been subjected to only one scientific trial outside Russia. The asthma sufferers who took part in the study in Brisbane, Australia, said their symptoms improved after using Buteyko.

However, Professor Charles Mitchell, the medical expert in charge of the trial, said the results were not conclusive.

"The people who go through the Buteyko programme, by and large, feel they're a lot better, but when you come down to objective tests of breathing capacity - how much air they can breathe out in the first second - they are no better," he said.

Carbon dioxide

QED invited Sacha Stolmatski, a Russian therapist, to run a five-day Buteyko breathing course.

The three people on the course, two of who were put forward by the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary as very severe cases, all appeared to derive benefit from the breathing exercises.

[ image: Campbell Stewart can now play golf]
Campbell Stewart can now play golf
Campbell Stewart, a self-employed plumber who could hardly walk 20 yards without getting breathless and coughing, was able to cut down on his medication within days of learning Buteyko.

Several months on from the course he is now playing golf - something he never thought possible.

"I've been really good," he said. "It surpassed what I thought, because I didn't think it would have happened, to be honest with you."

Another asthma sufferer, Tim Leon, confirms his success. He has now stopped using all asthmatic drugs.

"You have to be conscientious about it [breathing exercises], and it will differ with different people. It took me about two months to get to the point where I had no symptoms anymore," he said.

Clinical trial

Sacha Stolmatski believes over-breathing causes problems because it leads to the loss of carbon dioxide, a gas necessary for well being. He claims the narrowing of the airways seen in asthma attacks is the body's way of way of trying to hold on to the carbon dioxide.

He wants to see further clinical trials in the West to convince the medical profession that Buteyko really does have something to offer.

[ image: Dr Martin Partridge: Drugs have made a big difference]
Dr Martin Partridge: Drugs have made a big difference
"That is the only accepted way in this scientific world to recognise something or dismiss it," he said.

Dr Martin Partridge from the National Asthma Campaign said the experiences of Buteyko were very interesting but he stressed that drugs had to play a central role.

"I think we have to recognise that people with asthma have a very real wish not to be using medicines, but medicines have transformed the lives for people with asthma over the last couple of decades," he said.

"We need to recognise that these [therapies like Buteyko] are not alternatives, they are complementary therapies."

QED - Breathless - is broadcast on BBC 1 on Wednesday, August 19, at 21:30 BST.

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