National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM)

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Josephine P. Briggs, M.D.
Josephine P. Briggs, M.D.

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Josephine P. Briggs, M.D.

What the Science Says About Complementary Health Practices for Asthma

April 16, 2012

More than 24 million people in the United States, including 7 million children, suffer from asthma—a chronic lung condition that causes episodes of wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath. Although there is no cure for this condition, conventional medical treatments are very effective for managing asthma symptoms, and most people are able to control their asthma with conventional therapies and behavioral changes.

Even so, some people turn to complementary health practices in their efforts to relieve asthma symptoms, particularly for children. As a matter of fact, in the 2007 National Health Interview Survey asthma ranked eighth among conditions prompting use of complementary health practices by children. But what does the science say about these practices?

Several studies have looked at acupuncture, certain breathing exercises, and herbs and other dietary supplements for asthma, but according to reviewers who have assessed the research, there is not enough evidence to support the use of any complementary health practices for the relief of asthma. The goals of treating asthma are both to improve lung function and to relieve the symptomatic distress caused by the restricted movement of air. Although a few studies of complementary health practices have shown a trend toward symptom improvement, it’s important to note that improvements in asthma symptoms do not always correlate with improvements in lung function. A 2011 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine examining the placebo response in patients with chronic asthma found that patients’ self-reports on their symptoms showed significant improvement with placebo treatments (i.e., placebo inhaler and sham acupuncture); however, lung function did not improve.

NCCAM is currently conducting research on other complementary health practices for asthma, including mindfulness meditation, vitamin E, and ginkgo biloba, but it is too soon to draw any conclusions. For more information on what the science says about complementary approaches for asthma, take a look at our new fact sheet, Asthma and Complementary Health Practices.

If you are thinking about using a complementary health practice to help with your asthma symptoms, or your child’s, I urge you to first talk to your health care provider. Your health care provider may want you or your child to use a peak flow meter to monitor how well air moves out of the lungs. It’s important for you to know that few high quality studies have examined how complementary health practices may affect young people, and results from studies in adults do not necessarily apply to children. Children’s immune and central nervous systems are not fully developed, so they may respond to treatments differently than adults.

As a rule, don’t use any complementary health practice as a reason to delay seeing your doctor about asthma-like symptoms or any medical problem. And don’t replace scientifically proven treatments for asthma with unproven ones. The NCCAM Web site provides information about complementary health practices for asthma, as well as information about the use of these complementary approaches in children. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute at NIH also has information on asthma, including signs and symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, prevention, and living with this condition. Stay informed, and be well!

* Note: PDF files require a viewer such as the free Adobe Reader.