January 1, 2006 Chronic lung diseases such as bronchitis and emphysema can make breathing difficult. Researchers have shown that playing the harmonica on a regular basis can help. The repeated pattern of pushing air from the lungs into the instrument, and then sucking air back into the lungs helps patients learn to control and boost their breathing.
ANN ARBOR, Mich.--Ever tried breathing thru a tiny straw all day long? That's what it's like for many patients with lung disease -- every breath is a struggle. Now, patients can breathe a sigh of relief with a new technique that is helping them breath easier.
Chronic lung disease makes breathing difficult for 88-year-old Doris West. But now, a new harmonica class is helping tune up weakened lungs. Learning a few catchy tunes isn't the only reason Doris looks forward to her harmonica class. "We have a lot of joking and fun while we are presumably benefiting our breathing," she says.
MeiLan Han, a pulmonologist at the University of Michigan Health System in Ann Arbor, Mich., says, "In order to play a song you have to be able to take a deep breath in and blow out against resistance, which can help to strengthen the respiratory muscles."
Pulmonologists call it bodybuilding for the lungs -- the class doesn't focus on rhythm and tone, just on improved breathing. "When the patient takes a deep breath in and out while playing the harmonica, it slows down their breathing and helps them to relax," Dr. Han says.
The trick to harmonica playing is pushing air from the lungs into the instrument and then sucking air back into the lungs. This repeated pattern helps patients learn to control and boost their breathing.
Dr. Han says, "I'm hopeful that the harmonica class has at least improved their quality of life, made them happier, and taught them some breathing techniques."
Doris is already breathing easier and back to daily bike-rides, but she still takes time to rehearse.
The harmonica classes are helpful for people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which results from chronic bronchitis and emphysema.
BACKGROUND: Playing the harmonica can help people who suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) breathe better, according to researchers at the University of Michigan Health System. They offer a weekly pulmonary rehab class that uses harmonica instruction as a breathing exercise to treat the symptoms of COPD.
WHAT IS COPD: Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a permanent obstruction of airflow from the lungs. It is usually caused by smoking cigarettes or severe air pollution. When you breathe, air travels down through the windpipe and through a branching network of airways. At the ends of each branch are small air sacs that act like balloons: they fill up when you breathe in and deflate when you breathe out. In COPD, these air sacs lose their elasticity so they don't bounce back to their original shape as easily. The walls between many of the air sacs are destroyed (emphysema), and the airways swell up, restricting air flow. More mucus is produced than usual, which can further clog the airways. The damage is permanent; there is no cure for COPD. But the symptoms can be treated with medication, as well as through exercise, oxygen therapy and breathing exercises. People with COPD should avoid irritants such as smoke, air pollution and extreme variations in temperature and humidity.
ABOUT HARMONICAS: Harmonicas are handheld instruments that create sound when you blow or suck air through a series of small pre-tuned reeds in narrow chambers. Square holes funnel air to two reeds, known as the "blow" and "draw" reeds. Inhaling or exhaling from one side of the chamber vibrates the reeds, either one or a few reeds at a time, and creates harmonic sounds that come out on the other side. By varying the pressure of the air blown across the reeds, the player can produce different tones. Because they rely solely on the lips, tongue and breathing patterns to vary the pitch, playing the harmonica requires awareness and good control of breathing patterns. That's why it's so useful as a breathing exercise.