Research at the Johns Hopkins Medical Center casts serious doubts about the prevailing medical view of the cause of asthma and suggests an entirely new way of thinking about a disease that affects a growing number of people today, particularly children.
Until now, doctors assumed that asthmatics were hypersensitive to irritants like dust, pollen or pollutants. This hypersensitivity was thought to cause the airways in the lungs to contract, blocking the flow of air and leaving the patients gasping for breath. This lung airway constriction process was assumed to be absent in nonasthamatics.
But the new study strongly suggests that everyone is susceptible to asthmatic attacks and that the crucial difference between asthmatics and nonasthmatics lies in how well they can breathe after the initial assault on their system--specifically how efficiently they can take the deep breaths necessary to reinflate their lungs and clear the blocked airways.
Researchers used the inhalant drug metachlorine to deliberately constrict nonasthmatics’ airways. The subjects were then told NOT to breathe deeply. “The nonasthamatics suddenly began to have breathing difficulties remarkably similar to those of asthmatics,” said Dr. Alkis Tongias, the leader of the group conducting the study. “This is just the reaction we would expect if asthma is caused by an impairment of muscle relaxation (in the lungs) triggered by deep breaths.”
Dr. Marshall Plaut, chief of the allergic mechanism section at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, commented: “These are somewhat unpredicted findings...if deep breathing has a critical effect on the way the lung relaxes, it is a mechanism that is not well understood and needs more study.”
F. Matthias Alexander, the developer of the Alexander Technique, knew from his own experience a thing or two about gasping for breath, and how to overcome this problem. As early as 1903, he wrote: “Imagine the folly of narrowing an air tube when desiring to force a larger volume of air through it: and yet this is exactly what occurs in ordinary breath-taking.” When Alexander began teaching his method, he was known as the “breathing man” because he was able to help so many of his students regain the full use of their breathing mechanisms.
Could it be that asthmatics are particularly prone to constricting their nasal and throat passages when trying to take deep breaths? And could it be that this is caused by poor breathing habits, habits that may well have been learned in early childhood? If so, reeducation of the sort the Alexander Technique provides could make a huge difference in their lives.
A more complete account of the Johns Hopkins study can be found in an article titled “Study Induces Asthma Symptoms, Pointing to a Failure to Relax” by Warren Leary in the New York Times Health section, page B10, November 1, 1995. The quote from Alexander comes from an essay titles “The Prevention and Cure of Consumption.”
Robert Rickover is a teacher of the Alexander Technique living in Lincoln, Nebraska. He also teaches regularly in Toronto, Canada. Robert is the author of Fitness Without Stress - A Guide to the Alexander Technique and is the creator of The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique.