Are Alternative Asthma Treatments Effective and Safe?

What You Need to Know

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Nearly 60% of patients with asthma report using alternative asthma treatment and have tried Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) practices to improve their asthma despite a lack of definitive evidence that CAM works. This article will focus on:

  • What is CAM asthma treatment?
  • Talking with your doctor about alternative asthma treatment.
  • What alternative asthma treatments are available?

What Is CAM Treatment?

CAM asthma treatment is treatment generally considered to be outside of mainstream medicine as currently practiced. That does not mean that alternative asthma treatment may not help your asthma, just that there may currently be a lack of or limited evidence supporting the use of these therapies.

CAM generally describes practices or therapies that may be used as an adjunct to (complementary) or in place of (alternative) conventional medical treatment for asthma. While the definition varies, all the treatments here are considered part of CAM.

Talk With Your Doctor About CAM

It is important to make sure you let your healthcare provider know that you are using complementary or alternative asthma treatments and that you know all the potential side effects and interactions with your conventional medical regimen for your asthma.

What Alternative Asthma Treatment Is Available?

As part of traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture involves stimulating specific points on the body with needles in order to improve health and well-being. Studies using acupuncture to treat asthma have been mixed, with some showing benefit and most demonstrating no benefit.

Herbalism is the use of plants or plant products in the treatment of a medical condition like asthma. The theory is that plants or plant products have specific properties that may help improve asthma physiology anti-inflammatory or bronchodilatation.

While a number of current asthma drugs are derived from plants, phytotherapy -- or the use of plants and plant extracts to prevent and treat disease -- is not commonly practiced in the U.S. Despite this, large percentages of both adults and children (31% to 45%) in research studies are found to be using herbal products as part of their asthma regimen even though the evidence supporting herbal products is fairly weak.


It is a technique that helps people control involuntary physical responses. Results are mixed in asthma patients with children and teenagers showing the greatest potential benefit.

Breathing retraining may improve breathing in people with asthma. The techniques include techniques were mainly pranayama, a form of yoga, the Buteyko breathing technique, and muscular relaxation. The September 2003 Cochrane Review examining breathing exercises for asthma found that breathing exercises decreased both the need for rescue inhaler use and the number of acute asthma flares. Quality of life was also significantly improved with breathing retraining. The authors point out that because each of the studies were significantly different, they cannot make a routine recommendation for breathing exercises. But the improvements in quality of life appear promising. The authors conclude that large scale clinical trials are needed to determine if breathing exercises will be useful for asthma management.

Chiropractic Spinal Manipulation

This is a practice by chiropractors that emphasizes manipulation of the spine in order to help the body heal itself. A review by researchers concluded no evidence supports spinal manipulation as a treatment for asthma.

According to the National Cancer Institute, homeopathy is:

"An alternative approach to medicine based on the belief that natural substances, prepared in a special way and used most often in small amounts, restore health. According to these beliefs, for a remedy to be effective, it must cause in a healthy person the same symptoms being treated in the patient. Also called homeopathic medicine."

Examples of homeopathy include:

  • Licorice root
  • Gingko biloba
  • Coleus forshkohlii

The August 2007 Cochrane Review examining homeopathy found some agents providing benefits and others not providing benefit. Importantly, homeopathy delivered by appropriately trained healthcare professionals is unlikely to harm patients.

Hypnosis is an artificially induced trance-like dream state where susceptible persons become more aware, focused, and open to suggestion. When performed by appropriately trained individuals, hypnosis may help improve asthma and seems to more effective in children.

While some data supports hypnosis as a treatment for difficult-to-control asthma that does not optimally respond to medical therapy, relatively little investigation has examined hypnosis as a standard treatment for asthma. While there are some indications hypnosis may be an effective therapy, further study is needed.

Speleotherapy, or the use of caves and other subterranean environments for asthma treatment, is not common in the US or other Western countries but is widespread in some Central and Eastern European countries.

There is no evidence that speleotherapy improves breathing in people with asthma from published research trials. While a number of trials are available in Russian from Pub Med, a service of the National Library of Medicine housing scientific articles, the April 2006 Cochrane Review was unable to recommend speleotherapy for asthma and concluded more research was needed.

View Article Sources
  • Györik SA, Brutsche MH. Complementary and alternative medicine for bronchial asthma: is there new evidence? Curr Opin Pulm Med. 2004 Jan;10(1):37-43.
  • Hackman RM, Stern JS, Gershwin ME. Hypnosis and asthma: a critical review. J Asthma. 2000 Feb;37(1):1-15.