Electrical Stimulation for Asthma Relief?

What if you could use electrical currents to "shock" your severe asthma symptoms away so you can breathe better? Some researchers believe that for some cases, this is actually possible-and they've had success using electrical stimulation under very controlled conditions to help asthmatics who presented in real distress and didn't respond to more conventional asthma treatments.

Studying Electrical Stimulation

When you think of using electrical stimulation, you probably don't associate this as one of the most effective asthma treatments. Yet this technique does seem to be an effective method to reverse the most serious symptoms. If you wonder why it would be so effective, the answer seems to be that the technique can quickly open up the airways.

An Alternative to Other Asthma Treatments?

This finding comes from a very small study that had some very big results. In fact, researchers from Johns Hopkins Medical Center, as well as from four other well-respected research institutions, discovered that delivering tiny electrical pulses to the neck of patients in the midst of a severe asthma attack offered them relief they couldn't get though other more traditional treatment methods.

Exploring Electrical Stimulation: The Study Details

The study looked at four adult asthma patients who presented at emergency rooms in the midst of moderate to severe asthma episodes. In all four cases, the asthma symptoms didn't improve even after using inhalers and steroid medications, which is how the condition is typically addressed. To conclude that these traditional treatments weren't effective, doctors measured the patient's ability to expel air out of the lungs following treatment. In all four instances, the patients' score was 70 percent or less, which is below the criteria for these methods to be deemed successful.

Next, the emergency room personnel tried electric shock treatments for these patients. In each case, the neck area was numbed with anesthesia and then an electrode was inserted under the skin near the vagus nerve, guided by ultrasound technology.

The patients each received small but constant electrical shocks for a period of three hours. The intensity started off very mild and was increased until the symptoms began to improve. During and after treatment, the patients' ability to expel air was measured and this time, the patients did significantly improve.

Further Exploration for Electrical Stimulation Needed

This finding, which was presented at the annual Chest meeting in San Diego in 2009, offer real hope for asthmatics, since it means that a drug-free alternative exists to treat the most serious asthma attacks that don't respond to other methods. While more research on a wider scale is needed to better understand the benefits and to identify any limitations of electrical stimulation, the initial findings just may be a start to help change how some asthmatics are treated in the future.

What This Means to You

If you suffer from serious asthma attacks, it can be a good idea to talk to your doctor about this study and to ask if in an emergency you would be a good candidate to try electrical stimulation.  Further, if you suffer serious side effects from traditional asthma treatments, you may want to explore with him how such drug-free alternatives can be part of your asthma treatment plan. 

Just keep in mind, though, that while knowing how to treat your condition in an emergency is essential, it's also of the utmost importance to take steps to manage your asthma on a regular basis. To this end, you must be sure to take your medications as directed and do your best to avoid your asthma triggers so hopefully you won't have any need to try electrical stimulation in the near future.




American College of Chest Physicians