BACKGROUND: Playing the harmonica can help people who suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) breathe better, according to researchers at the University of Michigan Health System. They offer a weekly pulmonary rehab class that uses harmonica instruction as a breathing exercise to treat the symptoms of COPD.
WHAT IS COPD: Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a permanent obstruction of airflow from the lungs. It is usually caused by smoking cigarettes or severe air pollution. When you breathe, air travels down through the windpipe and through a branching network of airways. At the ends of each branch are small air sacs that act like balloons: they fill up when you breathe in and deflate when you breathe out. In COPD, these air sacs lose their elasticity so they don't bounce back to their original shape as easily. The walls between many of the air sacs are destroyed (emphysema), and the airways swell up, restricting air flow. More mucus is produced than usual, which can further clog the airways. The damage is permanent; there is no cure for COPD. But the symptoms can be treated with medication, as well as through exercise, oxygen therapy and breathing exercises. People with COPD should avoid irritants such as smoke, air pollution and extreme variations in temperature and humidity.
ABOUT HARMONICAS: Harmonicas are handheld instruments that create sound when you blow or suck air through a series of small pre-tuned reeds in narrow chambers. Square holes funnel air to two reeds, known as the "blow" and "draw" reeds. Inhaling or exhaling from one side of the chamber vibrates the reeds, either one or a few reeds at a time, and creates harmonic sounds that come out on the other side. By varying the pressure of the air blown across the reeds, the player can produce different tones. Because they rely solely on the lips, tongue and breathing patterns to vary the pitch, playing the harmonica requires awareness and good control of breathing patterns. That's why it's so useful as a breathing exercise.