Physio business makes breath-testing a practice with global reach

  • 28 November 2019

Auckland physiotherapy business Breathing Works is nestled among many medical businesses on Auckland’s medical mile at the Newmarket end of Remuera Road. It offers a specialist form of respiratory physiotherapy which is growing in demand as stress and mental health issues escalate. Zahra Shahtahmasebi reports.

Key points

  • Disordered breathing has become the norm for many New Zealanders, with prolonged stress or anxiety often the cause.
  • Auckland physiotherapy practice Breathing Works has developed a breathing technique to help patients improve their breathing.
  • The BradCliff Breathing Method is being used around the world by physiotherapists who have trained in the technique.

While breathing well and correctly is not a cure-all, it is an important piece of the puzzle that probably isn’t being considered

Disordered breathing has become the norm for many people. To such an extent that Auckland physiotherapist Tania Clifton-Smith says assessing a patient’s breathing pattern and resting respiratory rate should be part of the primary care consultation.

Auckland physiotherapist Tania Clifton-Smith says breathing pattern assessments should become a routine part of primary care
Auckland physiotherapist Tania Clifton-Smith says breathing pattern assessments should become a routine part of primary care

Ms Clifton-Smith, along with colleague Dinah Bradley, founded the Breathing Works clinic in Auckland in 1999, and later developed the BradCliff Breathing method, a research-based assessment and treatment programme used by trained and certified physios all over the world.

Breathing Works is a “retail” delivery practice, says Ms Clifton-Smith, developed out of, and specialising in, the BradCliff Breathing Method.

Ms Clifton-Smith says she and Ms Bradley have been using the method and teaching fellow physios since the early 1990s and have written a number of books on the subject.

“Our goal is to continue to teach, educate, and progress with science to offer the best treatment programme in this field at an international level. We have an international community who meets online sharing clinical cases, reviewing the latest research and general support.”

The method is not licensed or franchised because then it becomes more about the business compared with the content and science, which is what Ms Clifton-Smith says she and her col-leagues are passionate about.

“However, we will need to consider something as the courses continue to grow in demand; perhaps a model where there is a key person in each country.”

Courses range from being introductory, to more advanced sessions on the BradCliff technique and in 2020 will be run across New Zealand, Australia and Canada.

In 2016, the Breathing Works clinic was purchased by physiotherapists Scott and Brooke Peirce. Ms Clifton-Smith still practises and together the three physios own the BradCliff Breathing Method. Ms Peirce provides the method from a second clinic on Auckland’s North Shore.

Their patients are surprised by how easy it is to get rid of the negative symptoms simply by fixing their breathing, Ms Clifton-Smith says.

A Breathing Works assessment involves three questionnaires, which look at the patient’s history of medical problems such as reflux, and their diet, history of allergies or any other diseases, as well as their sleep history and exercise schedule.

These assessments are followed by an objective examination of the patient’s heart rate, peak oxygen flow and whether they have any musculoskeletal problems, Mr Peirce says. Treatment is directed accordingly, depending on what the patient’s main issues are.

Breathing Works and BradCliff treatments are drug free. The technique can be a powerful tool for self-regulation; an individual can use it anywhere and any time, Ms Clifton-Smith says.

While breathing well and correctly is not a “cure-all”, it is an important piece of the puzzle that probably isn’t being considered – but should be regarded as a fundamental recording of health status.

As breathing is a function for regulating the body, the benefits of breathing correctly are clear. “You can’t panic if you’re breathing well, slowly,” Ms Clifton-Smith says.

From a biochemical and functional perspective, many factors can alter breathing, including breathing too fast at rest, breath-holding and high performance sports.

Poor breathing is also associated with organic disorders such as adrenal tumours, chronic pain, asthma and anaemia.

Ms Clifton-Smith urges health professionals to ask themselves what is driving the unexpected pattern of breathing. “Is it something sinister or simply the pattern...What is the trigger?”

It may be a primary breathing pattern disorder, or a secondary disorder alongside a disease like chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder or asthma.

Mr Peirce suggests health professionals pay attention to a patient’s posture and the muscles they use to breathe.

Get them to put one hand on their tummy, and the other on their chest, and observe where their breath is going, he says. He finds people use their chest and shoulders 80 per cent of the time, instead of their abdomen and diaphragm.

Many people with asthma have dysfunctional breathing overlay, causing symptoms unrelated to asthma.

In Christchurch, fellow physiotherapist Ietje van Stolk practises the BradCliff method. “It changes lives, and it can only take four treatments...

“One lady said to me, ‘I’m not sure if I should hug you or hit you’.

She was 70 years old and had a horrible life due to these symptoms as a result of her breathing. It was painful, because fixing it was so simple.”

Ms van Stolk says the ongoing stress of the earthquakes and mosque attacks earlier this year can be part of the problem in Canterbury.

“If you’re stressed, you’re breathing differently, which can cause a variety of irritating symptoms,” she says.

These include tightness in the chest, light-headedness, fatigue or panic attacks, but they can be sporadic or seem unconnected, so are often overlooked in primary care. Early recognition of disordered breathing may help to reduce not just symptoms but perhaps also rates of mental health issues and youth suicide, Ms van Stolk suggests.

In young people, the unexpected symptoms and lack of a diagnosis make them feel as if they have lost control or been “betrayed” by their body, or are a hypochondriac, she says.

Scott Peirce teaching on a BradCliff course
Scott Peirce teaching on a BradCliff course

Read more

To find the following older stories from New Zealand Doctor go to ‘Archive pre-August 2017’ in The Vault then paste in the headline

  • Breathing retraining helps panic disorder - 18 May 2011
  • Breathing Works for Asthma - 20 Nov 2002

Zahra Shahtahmasebi

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