Is it possible that the mind can have an effect on the severity of childhood asthma?
Over the past 30 years of medical research, the answer is a resounding "yes." Decades of research have shown that various mind-body therapies, relaxation approaches and hypnosis can have a profound effect on the severity of asthma and medication use in children. These benefits can be immediate, are lasting and, unlike medications, have no significant side effects.
Asthma is characterized by a narrowing of the airways, commonly resulting in wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath. Asthma is a very wide spectrum illness affecting over 7 million children per year. It can be quite mild requiring no medications or so severe that frequent hospitalizations are necessary. Fortunately, among children, even severe asthma rarely is fatal. However, over half a million children are seen in emergency rooms every year for exacerbation of their asthma symptoms. It is a primary reason for children to miss school.
One interesting area of asthma research is how the mind is able to affect asthma symptoms. This falls under the classification of a relatively new area of medicine called psychoneuroimmunology. Over the past 30 years there has been robust research looking at the effect of stress reduction therapies, meditation, prayer and even hypnosis on reducing the symptoms and severity of asthma in children. Children seem to be exquisitely sensitive to hypnosis.
Hypnosis is not a state of where the mind is shut down. It is a state of intense concentration. In this particular state, the mind is more easily receptive to positive suggestions. Interestingly, hypnosis seems to be most effective in those with a good imagination as well as a higher IQ. Children have wonderfully vivid imaginations and this makes hypnosis a very good therapy for them.
One particularly good study published in 1984 looked at the effect of self-hypnosis with about 200 asthmatic children. Children were taught self-hypnosis techniques and practiced them regularly. The children were followed for about two years. Over that period of time they reported a 50 percent reduction of symptoms as well as a significant decrease in use of medications. In addition, the children had a 70 percent reduction in school absenteeism. Some of the children even had complete resolution of all asthma symptoms. This study was repeated in 1995 with a different group of children and results were the same.
In adults, there are significant side effects to long-term use of asthma medications. The side effects are simply compounded when medication use begins in childhood. Hypnosis is a very safe and simple procedure that can reduce the severity of asthma symptoms as well as decreased use of medications. In my opinion, this is a therapy that should be commonly offered to all asthmatics, both children and adults.
• Patrick B. Massey, MD, PH.D., is medical director for complementary and alternative medicine at Alexian Brothers Hospital Network and president of ALT-MED Medical and Physical Therapy, 1544 Nerge Road, Elk Grove Village. His website is www.alt-med.org.