By Jennifer Nelson
Could singing every day keep the doctor away for patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)? An English study has found rocking a harmony can help ease the symptoms of COPD, improve breathing and increase lung function.
COPD is a chronic condition that worsens with time and is caused by damage to the air sacs and passages that make up the lungs. According to the World Health Organization, 64 million people worldwide suffer from COPD.
Sufferers often struggle to breathe, so how are they supposed to sing?
“When singing you expand the lungs more, and exhale in a more prolonged and relaxed way so that more of the carbon dioxide (which is usually retained in patients with COPD) is exhaled,” said Dr. Andrea Paul, chief medical officer at www.Boardvitals.com , a physician-run company that helps residents pass their medical boards.
The long-term study by Canterbury Christ Church University in Kent found regular singing improved COPD patients’ symptoms.
Participants in the study sang in 60-minute sessions weekly over 12 weeks, and researchers noted the progression of their COPD symptoms halted. Their lung function either maintained or improved, but the COPD didn’t progress, Paul noted.
Dr. Ian Morrison, a senior research fellow and study author, said lung function improved dramatically, particularly after about five months, once people changed their breathing habits.
The study participants’ breathing was assessed at the beginning and end of the study using a spirometer, a device similar to a large Breathalyzer that measures lung function. Most of the patients improved on the spirometer, showing more lung capacity than they had at the beginning of the study.
Researchers speculate singing helps COPD patients inhale without anxiety, take deeper breaths and clear the lungs more efficiently than they would in taking shorter breaths. Singing enables patients to breathe in a deeper and more relaxed way.
Trisha Craig, 48, of Stratham, N.H., understands. The professional flutist’s lungs are significantly compromised due to scar tissue and allergy-induced asthma. “There is no question in my doctor’s mind that my being a professional flutist has saved my life,“ she said. "My lung capacity is very high and that has made it possible for me to function normally with such compromised lungs. Any wind instrument—including voice—would do the same.”
Interestingly, participants in the study reported the singing sessions also lifted their spirits, promoted relaxation, helped in coping with their illness and reduced anxiety and depression.
“It is truly fantastic to be able to offer these patients an option that is not only free, but also fun,” said Paul, who recommends COPD patients try 30 minutes of full-volume singing a few times a week. Join a choir or musical group, sing in the shower or belt out tunes in the car—anything that will get those pipes working.