Asthma is a chronic inflammatory condition where the airways to our lungs narrow and swell. They produce extra mucus, and breathing becomes difficult. The most common symptoms of asthma are coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath but asthma symptoms range from minor to severe and vary from person to person. Some people only experience symptoms when they have asthma flare-ups, that may primarily occur at night, during exercise, or when exposed to specific triggers, allergies, or irritants. These people may have mild symptoms and infrequent asthma attacks and to them, asthma symptoms are a minor nuisance. Others experience severe or constant asthma symptoms that are a major problem and interfere with daily activities.
It isn’t well-understood in Western medicine why some people get asthma and others don’t, but it is believed to be caused by a combination of environmental and genetic factors. Risk factors include having a parent or sibling with asthma, having an allergic condition, a low birth weight, and being exposed to pollution, chemicals, allergens, and cigarette smoke. One thing we do know is that asthma is very common, affecting millions of adults and children and that number is growing every year.
The Western medicine approach to asthma is to control its symptoms, as asthma is seen as incurable. Treatment involves learning to recognize triggers and taking steps to avoid them, combined with the use of asthma medications such as inhalers and corticosteroids, among others, to keep symptoms under control. Unfortunately, many of these medications have negative side effects or compromise other areas of health or daily living.
Chinese medicine (TCM) has a different approach to asthma, and can be quite effective for this condition. According to Chinese medicine, the root cause of asthma is generally due to a constitutional (hereditary) weakness in the body’s defensive qi-energy system. Our defensive qi (‘chee’) system is a part of our body’s immune system, providing resistance to outside pathogens. Because our lungs are directly exposed to things in our external environment like cold, heat, smoke or pollen, our lungs are an important part of our defense system. People who develop asthma, have a weakness of defensive qi, particularly in the lungs, that may be aggravated by lifestyle such as diet and emotional stress, and exposure to external allergens, irritants, and chemicals. These external allergens, irritants, and pathogens are called invasions of “wind” in Chinese medicine, which essentially refers to anything of external origin that has an effect on our internal health. The combination of a weakened defense system and these “wind” invasions are conditions for asthma to develop.
Acupuncture treatments target these wind invasions which are the trigger for asthma attacks. Regular treatments during asthma attacks or severe asthma symptoms can help to reduce symptoms and lessen the frequency of the attacks. During the periods when asthma attacks are infrequent and symptoms are mild, acupuncture treatment focuses on treating the root problem- the weakness of the defensive-qi systems. By correcting and strengthening immune system functioning and influencing the body to function in a more healthy state, we can produce more lasting results for asthma sufferers. In many cases this can mean living symptom-free or with minimum symptoms for asthma sufferers.
Because asthma is complex condition that has to do with the body’s constitution, the treatment of asthma with acupuncture is usually steady and gradual, requiring a longer series of treatments to produce lasting results. However, what is important is that lasting results can be achieved, making acupuncture a great option for the treatment of asthma.
James Kaufman is a Registered Acupuncturist at Okanagan Acupuncture Centre, 1625 Ellis St, Kelowna, BC.