It may seem counterintuitive, but it appears that teaching a person with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) to play the harmonica brings orchestrated benefits. This little known finding, which resulted from a small, little known study, was presented during CHEST 2019, the 85th annual meeting for the American College of Chest Physicians, October 19 through October 23, in New Orleans.
Mary Hart, RRT, MS, FCCP, Baylor Scott & White Health in Dallas, reported the findings and was also an original cohort study leader. The study, Hart explained, included 14 persons with COPD, all former smokers, average age 72 years, and had completed pulmonary rehabilitation at least six months prior to joining The Harmaniacs — as initial study participants call themselves. After three months of playing the harmonica, for about 30 minutes a day most days of the week, several COPD participants experienced improved pulmonary outcome measures.
The study showed that playing the harmonica helped those with COPD gain:
- Better control of breathing by practicing pursed lips breathing (PLB) and diaphragmatic breathing, a type of breathing that helps strengthen the diaphragm.
- Improved strength of muscles that help pull air in and push air out of the lungs.
- Stronger abdominal muscles, resulting in a more effective cough.
- Decreased struggles with shortness of breath.
- Increased sputum mobilization.
The study also pointed to several unexpected and hugely important benefits:
- Increased self-confidence.
- Decreased stress.
- Participants began to socialize more.
- Overall, the harmonica players reported an increase in quality of life.
An important and somewhat unexpected benefit of this program, Hart shared, was the pure enjoyment participants experienced — with several study players noting increased quality of life.
“One of the biggest surprises in this study came at our 12-week evaluation,” Hart said. “We found that participants’ 6-minute walk improved significantly, increasing by nearly 50 meters. When I showed these results to a pulmonologist, his response was genuine surprise.”
What’s even more remarkable, Hart added, was that those who continued to play after the official study concluded, continued to show progress. For example, during a 6-month follow up, participants’ 6MWT — from baseline — had gained an additional 102.57 + 55.48 meters.
“Our goal now is to find funding so we can conduct a much bigger study. We need a control group and enough patients to say that this is something that works — something that can really make a difference in pulmonary rehab.”
While results from the little cohort study are still being reviewed, the concept itself already has a second verse. A joint effort between the COPD Foundation and PEP (Pulmonary Empowerment Program) resulted in the first nationwide harmonica program created for individuals with COPD and other chronic lung diseases.1 There is a fee connected to various packages.
One more noteworthy comment; Chris Janson is not only an American country music singer and songwriter, he’s also diagnosed with asthma. Janson says, “As an asthmatic, harmonica playing has helped me overcome my breathing problems and make some damn good music.”1