Turning to Alternatives for Asthma Control

Complementary medicine used often by patients with uncontrolled asthma

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) In an effort to relieve their asthma, many patients have been drawn to alternative medicine. A recent study was conducted to examine whether alternative medicine was associated with better asthma control than conventional medicine.

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is any treatment for a particular condition that is not used in conventional medicine. Examples include homeopathy, acupuncture and various herbs. Complementary medicine is used with medically prescribed treatments whereas alternative medicine is not.

This recent study showed that patients with uncontrolled asthma were more likely to use complementary and alternative medicine than patients with controlled asthma.

The researchers found that many patients did not inform their doctors about their use of complementary and alternative medicine. Since complementary and alternative medicine can potentially have harmful side effects, the researchers noted that it is important for patients to discuss their use of such treatments with their doctors.

"Tell your doctor if you're using complementary and alternative medicine."

In this study, Mohsen Sadatsafavi, MD, PhD, of the Institute for Heart and Lung Health at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, and colleagues aimed to examine whether the use of complementary and alternative medicine was associated with asthma control.

The study included 486 patients who were an average of 52 years old, 67.3 percent of whom were women. In this study, asthma symptoms included difficulty breathing during the day or night, limited activity and need of rescue medication (medication used to relieve symptoms immediately).

The participants were categorized into three groups based upon the severity of their asthma within the last three months. The groups were classified as controlled, partially controlled and uncontrolled asthma.

About 20 percent of the participants had controlled asthma, 38.5 percent had partially controlled asthma and 41.6 percent had uncontrolled asthma.

These patients were asked whether they had used complementary or alternative medicine to treat their asthma within the last 12 months. 

A total of 179 patients admitted to using complementary and alternative medicine within the last 12 months.

The most popular alternative treatments included breathing exercises, herbal medicine and vitamins. More specifically, 17.7 percent of patients did breathing exercises, 10.1 percent took herbal medicine and 9.7 percent took vitamins.

The study found that patients with uncontrolled asthma were about 125 percent more likely to have used complementary and alternative medicine within the past 12 months than those who were classified as having controlled asthma.

Furthermore, the study found that women were about 66 percent more likely than men to have used complementary and alternative medicine within the past 12 months among the three groups.

The results of this study are not without their shortcomings, however. The patients' use of complementary and alternative medicine was based upon self-reports. Due to this, the reliability of each testimony is uncertain.

Despite these limitations, Dr. Sadatsafavi and colleagues explained why these studies are so important.

“Given the uncertain benefits, potential side effects and possible drug interactions of complementary and alternative medicine, it is important for physicians to be aware of complementary and alternative medicine usage among their patients and understand the reasons of use,” they wrote.

"Most patients turn to CAM for one of two reasons… either their prescription medication is not working or they prefer trying 'natural' medications rather than taking 'pills' for fear of side effects. I would first ask the patients what concerns they have regarding their current asthma medications.  The patient may say that the medication is not effective.  In that case I would review their medications and made sure they are on an appropriate regimen.  Next I would watch them use their medications.  It is always amazing to me when I see an asthmatic of 20 years using their inhalers improperly and how much better they feel the first time they use it properly," Josephine Dlugopolski-Gach, MD, a pediatrician and internist at Loyola University Health System, told dailyRx News.

"If they are worried about side effects (especially inhaled steroids) I explain that inhaled steroids are much more effective than quick relieving medications at controlling asthma and are much better to use than oral steroid bursts for more severe exacerbations. I also remind the patients that CAM has side effects that may not be documented the same way that traditional medications do. CAM definitely has a place in medicine but doctors and patients must work together to make a custom plan based on the history and severity of disease," said Dr. Dlugopolski-Gach. 

This study was published September 4 in the BMJ Open. The study was funded by Collaborative Innovative Research Fund. The authors declared no conflicts of interest. 

Review Date: 
September 5, 2013
Last Updated:
September 10, 2013