When Claudia Deyton started playing the harmonica, she couldn’t manage three notes because of the breathing difficulties caused by her chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). “I couldn’t breathe from one note to the other,” says the 72-year-old from Austin, Texas.

Now she can play any of her favorite old ballads, from “Oh! Susanna” to “You Are My Sunshine,” in full. That’s thanks to harmonica therapy, one of several complementary therapies for COPD, a chronic lung condition that makes breathing difficult for the more than 12 million Americans who have it.

Harmonica Therapy for COPD

Deyton is one of several people with COPD who started participating in harmonica therapy when the classes first began in Austin’s Seton Outpatient Pulmonary Rehabilitation Center in 2013. A respiratory therapist had mentioned them to Deyton during outpatient pulmonary rehab, and she thought it might be fun to try it.

“I was right about the fun part,” says Deyton, “and I have found that playing these tunes has gradually improved my breathing capacity.” Combined with exercising and losing weight, harmonica therapy has helped Deyton walk further and stand longer than she could before she signed up for classes, she says.

Aside from its physical benefits, harmonica therapy can also help ease the anxiety that often comes with COPD. When the group is in session, everyone can forget about their breathing difficulties.

“While I am playing the harmonica, I am enjoying it and not thinking about my breathing,” says Deyton. That’s something all participants share. “We are interested in getting the music right,” she says. “Coughing or temporary shortness of breath does not dissuade us.”

Although scientific studies haven’t yet confirmed the benefits of playing harmonica for COPD, Mark Aronica, MD, a pulmonologist at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, says he’s not surprised that patients are finding harmonica therapy helpful. “The harmonica is one of the few instruments played by both breathing in and out,” Dr. Aronica says. “So I imagine it has some benefit in teaching breathing control, which can help reduce COPD symptoms.”

asing COPD Symptoms With Yoga

COPD patient Mary Wolaver, 74, of Carrollton, Texas, practices another complementary therapy that helps relieve her COPD symptoms: gentle yoga. The class meets twice a week for 45 minutes at the senior center near her home.

Wolaver’s instructor knows she has COPD and encourages her to listen to her body. “She just tells everyone that if it hurts, we shouldn’t do it,” she says. So Wolaver takes it easy, which allows her to continue taking the class regularly.

“I love it, and I am sure it has made a difference in my blood oxygen levels,” Wolaver says. Yoga has taught her to calm herself down when her breathing gets short and to breathe deeper, she adds.

A study of 33 people, published in the American Journal of Therapeutics, confirms what Wolaver has discovered on her own about the effect of yoga on COPD. After an hour of yoga three times a week for six weeks, study participants showed improved lung function and scored higher on quality-of-life measures.

Walking for Better Lung Function

For David Hagar, 50, of Council Bluffs, Iowa, a promotion at work turned out to be an unusual treatment for his COPD. Hagar had been driving a forklift for Pepsi for seven years. When he was offered the opportunity to become yard boss, which involved more physical work, he accepted. “Yard boss duties include walking around the plant and getting trucks so we can load them,” he says.

After about four months on the new job, Hagar found his weight dropping. When he was first diagnosed with emphysema in 2011, he weighed about 230 pounds. Now he’s down to 180 pounds. “And with my meds, my COPD is barely noticeable,” he says.

Hagar figured out that, thanks to his new responsibilities, he walks about 10 miles a day. “I now have a different outlook and less COPD pain just from walking so much more,” he says.

Volunteering: A Helpful Strategy for COPD

Sandra Adams, MD, MS, a pulmonologist at University Hospital and the South Texas Veterans Health Care System in San Antonio says that volunteering can also be beneficial for those with COPD.

Dr. Adams suggests that helping others is one of the best ways to alleviate COPD lung pain and stay healthier. “It’s a great coping mechanism for people with COPD because it boosts their mood and helps them see that they’re not alone with their medical ills,” she says.

Whether your chosen activity takes place at a community center or a food bank, the message is clear: Taking life-affirming steps can help ease COPD pain, both physically and emotionally.

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