Massage Therapy Can Ease Breathing for Asthmatics

by Dave Pratt

     It is estimated that more than 15 million Americans have asthma, and the number rises each year. This well-known condition makes it hard for people to breathe, and at its worst, it can be life-threatening.

     So, what happens when an asthmatic is feeling that familiar tightness in his or her chest? Well, the lungs’ delicate bronchiole tubes can be restricted by muscles surrounding them, their linings can become irritated and swollen or they may be blocked by mucus.

     During an “asthma attack” the airways react with extreme hypersensitivity, making breathing difficult, especially exhaling. This state can be brought on by a variety of airborne triggers, exercise, stress and emotional duress.

     Research conducted at the University of Miami School of Medicine’s Touch Research Institute (published in The Journal of Pediatrics) proves that massage positively affects the symptoms of this disease. These tests involved asthmatic children who received 20 minutes of massage at bedtime.

     It was discovered that patients had improvement in overall lung function, their stress hormone levels reduced, peak air flow measurements increased and anxiety tapered off. The truly amazing part is that this all happened in about one month! Wow, this shows the power of touch.

     Since difficulty breathing can create stress and even panic, increased symptoms often lead to a vicious cycle. Less air equals more stress. More stress equals less air...

     Because of these facts, I choose an approach that helps prevent flareups and releases restricted soft tissues common to asthmatics. I also know that this hands-on treatment reduces stress and creates a sense of well-being.

     Acupuncture points can be massaged (known as Shiatsu or acupressure) to help create balance in the body, and this is a great help to those with asthma. This map of points dotting our frames was first discovered more than 3,000 years ago in China, and is now widely accepted by western medicine.

     It is only in the recent past that scientists have confirmed that these measurable points, or “tsubo,” have a much higher number if nerve endings and lower electrical resistance than the surrounding skin.

     In the past decade, increasing numbers of Western physicians have acknowledged the efficacy of this healing modality for a variety of conditions, including asthma. Many hospitals in Ohio now have doctors on staff who perform acupuncture, and there is even a school in Columbus that offers a Master Level program in acupuncture. (The American Institute of Alternative Medicine)

     Massaging these points with fingers, thumbs, knuckles and palms can help unblock stagnant energy, and with seemingly reflexive effects, improve breathing and even boost the immune system.

     Another way to aid breathing with massage therapy involves different points called Neurolymphatic reflexes. The body’s lymphatic vessels serve as a drainage system that also delivers hormones, proteins and fats to cells. Additionally, the system carries out immune responses, making its proper functioning vital to our health.

     Sometimes, these vessels can become congested. By massaging points corresponding to a particular organ, a therapist can encourage lymphatic drainage towards the heart. For example, when Neurolymphatics for the lungs are treated, the vessels surrounding the bronchiole tubes are reflexively stimulated to drain.  The end result is less congestion around the airways and greater ease breathing.

     Experiments show the validity of these points by measuring blood chemistry changes after stimulation compared to “dummy” points with no reflex action.

     The wonderful thing about all of these methods is that clients can easily learn self-treatment. This can be empowering, giving control to someone who may have been feeling controlled by illness. This is bolstered by the fact that all of these forms of massage foster calm and centeredness.

     Also, because restrictions in breathing are often chronic, muscle and connective tissue involved in labored respiration can become very rigid and constricted. Between the ribs are intercostal muscles that are easily overworked during gasping episodes. Along with certain neck muscles, they become stressed from helping to expand the rib cage to allow more air in.

     Detailed massage therapy and stretching are a welcome relief, loosening and lengthening these tight areas and expanding the rib cage. Even the diaphragm, the most important muscle of inspiration, can receive some attention. As these soft tissues are released, there is a widening sense of openness and greater ease taking each inhalation and exhalation.

     If mucus buildup is a problem, rhythmic percussive movements to the chest and back can loosen the blockage considerably.

     Having said all this, I would be remiss not to address the heart of massage - the art of massage. I say this because I want it to be clear that I do not view the person lying on the table as simply a mechanical thing with a problem to be “fixed.” The simple care for another person, guided by a practitioner’s dedication to being present throughout a treatment, are a priceless support for someone who is having trouble breathing. It’s reassuring for clients to know that someone cares and is there to help.

     It can be a frightening situation to be in - gasping for air and not sure what is going to happen next. To experience the steady support of a confident massage therapist or bodyworker can be a key ingredient in a person’s healing.

Dave Pratt is a Licensed Massage Therapist and Breema bodywork instructor who has been serving Holmes County Clients and its visitors since 1997. He practices at True Nature Holistic Retreats, in Millersburg, where he offers treatments, classes and retreats with his wife, Alana Pratt, an experienced yoga and meditation instructor. Dave and Alana are the founders and co-owners of True Nature and can be reached at An edited version of this article originally appeared in Daily Record Publishing.