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COPD patients use harmonicas to increase lung capacity

Take a breath, hold it in your lungs and count to three. Now exhale, but don’t let out all the air. Now take in another breath and hold it, let a little out, and inhale once more. Imagine: Could you go grocery shopping while breathing like this?

This is how an estimated 30 million people in the U.S. with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) breathe every day.

Typically, COPD is treated with inhalers, pulmonary rehab and oxygen therapies — but researchers at the Baylor Scott & White Research Institute have tuned in to music therapy as a new way to help these patients breathe better.

Toe-tapping rhythms turned into clinical practice

The idea of music therapy isn’t new, but it has changed health care in very sensory ways. The beep of ventilators, the hiss of oxygen and whir of carts make up the typical sounds of breathing equipment.

But in the Cvetko Patient Resource Center at the Baylor Charles A. Sammons Cancer Center at Dallas, the hum of harmonicas radiates through the halls — especially on Wednesdays.

That’s when a group of 14 people with COPD gather to learn how to play the palm-sized instrument as part of a new study to see whether it can actually strengthen their lungs, reduce shortness of breath during activity and improve their quality of life.

Music for your ears, and for your lungs too

But of all wind instruments, why the harmonica?

While most instruments only require breathing out to make sound, the harmonica requires players to exhale and inhale to produce sound. The in and out music-making essentially mimics how we breathe, but by adding the harmonica to the mix, you’re adding resistance too.

That resistance makes the greatest workout for your lungs, without having to hit the gym. It also strengthens the diaphragm (your largest breathing muscle) and encourages deeper, fuller breathing.

And best of all, there’s no music experience required — not even to read sheet music. For this study, investigators have made it easy to learn by marking sounds with numbers and arrows.

A creative outlet for overcoming anxiety

Though most of us breathe without thinking about it, for people with COPD, just breathing is their biggest challenge. As a result, it affects many aspects of their daily lives.

Your brain’s internal alarm goes off when you have trouble breathing, triggering an anxious response. Burdened with that anxiety, people with COPD tend to isolate themselves, and depression can set in. About four in 10 people with COPD suffer from depression.

But through this study, researchers hope to overcome those challenges — giving patients a better breath with every beat.

“When they can breathe better and do more of what they enjoy, we believe it will improve their quality of life,” said Mary Hart, MS, RRT, the research project manager for this study. “That’s the whole purpose.”

Once completed in May 2018, researchers hope this study will help spread harmonica music therapy as a rehab option across the country. Until then, the harmonica players have been practicing for their upcoming concerts at the Baylor Charles A. Sammons Cancer Center at Dallas.

“I think it’s important for our patients that we find ways to help them and sometimes they’re non-traditional or creative ways,” Hart said. “It’s an outlet for them. Not only are they strengthening their muscles, but they don’t even realize it because they’re having so much fun playing and interacting with others.”

Find out more about lung care at Baylor Scott & White Health.

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COPD patients use harmonicas to increase lung capacity