TORONTO — A breathing technique video touted as potentially “lifesaving” for patients suffering from COVID-19 has been getting wide attention on social media — even J.K. Rowling said it helped — but with so many hoaxes making the rounds online, is there any validity to its claims?
The YouTube video advises patients to take five deep breaths, holding each one for five seconds, and to take a big cough (with the mouth covered) after the sixth deep breath. After completing this breathing exercise twice, the individual should lay flat on their stomach — not back — with a pillow and take slightly deeper breaths for another 10 minutes.
“I want you guys to start doing this if you have the infection right from the beginning. If you want to do it before you even pick up the infection, good idea,” said Queens Hospital’s Dr. Sarfaraz Munshi in the video.
Various versions of the YouTube video by Munshi and Sue Elliott, a director of nursing at the U.K. non-profit health organization Partnership of East London Co-operatives Ltd (PELC), have been viewed some 3.7 million times combined so far.
It was shared by the Harry Potter author, who wrote on Twitter that she has had COVID-19 symptoms for the last two weeks and practiced the technique on the advice of her husband, who is a physician.
“I’m fully recovered & technique helped a lot,” she tweeted.
COVID-19 can cause fluid to accumulate in the lungs, causing shortness of breath and patients to take smaller breaths. Difficulty breathing and pneumonia in both lungs are among the most common symptoms of the disease, and in the most severe cases, patients need to be intubated and put on a ventilator.
Health experts told CTVNews.ca that the exercises and suggestions on the video are based on long-established techniques to prevent a patient’s lungs from collapsing, but cautioned that it is not a miracle cure and that anyone having trouble breathing should seek professional help immediately.
“Some people with COVID-19, or coronavirus disease, deteriorate very quickly, so I would hate for someone to try and self-manage at home who should be seeking medical attention,” said Carolyn McCoy, the Director of Accreditation and Professional Practice Services with the Canadian Society of Respiratory Therapists.
“I can’t stress that point enough.”
Going to a hospital during a pandemic may seem quite scary and some people may also worry about inadvertently infecting someone along the way, but “people should not delay appropriate medical attention,” said McCoy, who is a registered respiratory therapist.
HOW DOES THE BREATHING TECHNIQUE WORK?
Prone positioning has been used for decades in critical care for patients who have a condition called acute respiratory distress syndrome, are intubated and on a ventilator, health experts say.
“There are several techniques for allowing chest expansion to avoid collapsing of lower lung segments for patients who are bed bound in some way or suffering from a pulmonary infection. This would be one of them,” said Dr. Abdu Sharkawy, an assistant professor of medicine with the University Health Network in Toronto via email.
Most of the lung tissue is along back and not in the front, so placing someone on their belly helps the blood flow to more areas of the lung.
“If someone’s lying on their back, the blood flows to the parts of the lungs that could be getting collapsed from the weight of just the body itself. If we put someone in the prone position — if we put them belly down — now, the greater volume of lungs is still along the back, but it’s less likely to become compressed,” McCoy explained.
The deep breathing exercises in the video are typically used to help mitigate something called atelectasis, said McCoy, the medical term for collapse of lung tissue. The combination of fluid in the lungs and taking small breaths can make people vulnerable to the condition.
“If you do have fluid or mucus that gets trapped in lung units, that makes someone more susceptible to developing pneumonia,” she added.
Sharkawy cautioned that while the exercise may be worth doing, it is debatable as to how meaningful an impact it would have in changing how the disease develops in a patient.
“It’s unlikely this will mean the difference between surviving CoVid-19 or not. If you get a ‘bad strain’ and you require ventilator support, this would not help prevent it in any way,” he said.
“If you have a mild form of the disease, it could theoretically help limit the likelihood of a secondary bacterial infection, which is actually not that common in CoVid-19 anyways.”
Ultimately, for patients who are having difficulty breathing — some people describe it as the lungs feeling tight, or like someone is sitting on their chest — it is safer to seek medical help at the earliest point possible.
“People’s fears are valid, but they’re better off seeking help early for sure,” McCoy said.
If you are not sure whether you should seek medical attention, take this self-assessment test provided by the Public Health Agency of Canada.
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