Gail Edmans, who suffers with asthma, on her way to finishing the 'Norsman' extreme ironman triathlon in Norway 2010

What is asthma?

Asthma is a chronic condition where hypersinsitivity to an allergen (ie dust or animal fur) or to cold air or fumes (usually late onset) causes irritation and a narrowing of the airways, in particular the bronchials in the lungs.

What happens?

Airways become inflammed and the smooth muscle spasms making it difficult to breathe. The difficulty is with breathing out and this is when wheezing is heard. The inflammation causes excess production of mucus and   a cough develops in an attempt to remove the excess fluid.

Airways especially the bronchials become inflammed

How an osteopath may assess

An osteopath is trained to evaluate all body systems and will first observe a patient, look at how the chest is moving, look for any asymmetry in the rib movement or muscle tone and observe overall posture. Listen for wheezing.

Then feel how the rib-cage is moving, feel for restrictions or rigidity. Check that the diaphragm is moving, assess the upper spine for any stiffness or tenderness in the joints and muscle. It is important to assess the accessory muscles of respiration, those that are used in stressed or laboured breathing. These are muscles at the front of the neck and top of the shoulders. The joints and muscles of the neck should also be assessed as well as facial muscles which will often be over-worked and may cause sinus problems.

osteopathic assessment of the cervical spine

How an osteopath may treat the symptoms of asthma.

The aim is to improve respiratory function. Improve the mobility of the rib-cage by using gentle rythmic movements and stretching along with soft tissue massage. An osteopath will often work on releasing tension of the diaphragm. The diaphragm is a large sheet of muscle which seperates our upper and lower trunk cavities. When we breathe in, the diaphragm is pushed down and flattens, to increase space for our lungs to expand and at the same time massages our digestive organs. If the diaphragm is tight it may be a cause of constipation or IBS.

The accessory muscles of respiration will be worked on and if required the facial muscles. Techniques may also be included to release sinus tension and remove excess mucus build-up, this will include lymphatic drainage.

Finally the neck has neurological connections to the lungs and the diaphragm and therefore will generally be included in a treatment to help relieve musculo-skeletal symptoms of asthma.

Why and when to have osteopathic treatment?

It is ideal to start treatment as early on as possible as this prevents chronic stiffness of the rib-cage and shortening of the associated muscles. Children with asthma will often respond more favourably to treatment than long term adult suffers.  However osteopathy offers a musculo-skeletal dimension to the treatment of symptoms of asthma, which is not addressed by pharmacology. This can only be of benefit to young and chronic patients, when used in harmony with  prescribed medication.