Patients harmonize for better breathing

Thursday, January 31, 2008

PHOENIX - There are a bunch of people in Phoenix singing the praises of the John C. Lincoln Better Breathers support group and with good reason.
For the past few years, the hospital has used "harmonica therapy" to help patients with COPD and other lung diseases improve their overall health.
"It's a supplement to other things: medication compliance, seeing a pulmonologist, a little bit of exercise, things like that," said Mike Clark, who works at the hospital as a registered respiratory therapist. "For the most part, it not only helps the lungs but it helps to reduce stress because it is fun."
Clark, who plays a little harmonica, learned about harmonica therapy a few years ago through an acquaintance and began using it with his patients. He's since assembled a 40-tune song book that includes Happy Birthday, Camp Town Races and other simple folk songs.
"We play a pretty good Jingle Bells," he said in late December.
Physically, playing the harmonica requires a patient to breathe in and out, drawing and blowing air across the instrument's reeds. This helps to strengthen the diaphram and the muscles around the lungs. If a patient develops enough skill to play single notes, that's even better. Using your lips or tongue to block holes enhances breath control and increases resistance, which works the muscles a little harder, Clark said.
"For years I've been blowing up 5-inch balloons," said Mary Lou Shields, 78, one of Clark's patients. "I think the harmonica works better for my emphysema. I do exercise and that helps. If I get short of breath my husband tells me to get out my harmonica, so I use it every day."
Harmonica therapy's not for everyone. Some patients take it home and give it to a grandchild or stick it in a drawer, Clark said. But many patients love it. What's more, with a little practice, most respiratory therapists could use it with their patients.
"I've had patients tell me that it makes them less short of breath and that they have more power to take their inhalers," Clark said. "I had one woman who used to be a singer, got emphysema and never sang again. She started playing the harmonica and a year or two later she said, 'You know what, I can sing again.'"