Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is an umbrella term used to define two different types of lung disease: chronic bronchitis and emphysema. The former is a condition that impairs the bronchioles, the airway tubes that lead into the lungs. The latter affects the tiny air sacs in the lungs called the alveoli. These are responsible for the transfer of oxygen and carbon dioxide to and from the bloodstream. Both chronic bronchitis and emphysema are called “obstructive” diseases because they make it more difficult for the patient to expel air from the lungs, thus leading to a buildup of CO2 in the blood.
When a patient is diagnosed with COPD, they’re typically prescribed a standardized treatment plan including but not limited to supplemental oxygen therapy, a specialized diet, pulmonary rehabilitation, and breathing exercises. These are all clinically proven techniques that will help to prevent breathlessness, chest pain, and improve long-term prognosis. While most COPD patients adhere to these well-researched practices, some people look for additional “home remedies” to treat their disease. These are usually referred to as “alternative therapies.”
Here at LPT Medical, we don’t advise using any type of alternative therapy unless it’s explicitly approved by your doctor or pulmonologist. Some alternative therapies and medications are touted as “cure-alls” or “cheap alternatives” to standardized medications, but more often than not, they don’t live up to their hype and they can even result in further damage to your lungs. In this post, we’re going to tell you all about the alternative therapy called halotherapy, or more commonly known as salt therapy. If you have any questions, please feel free to leave them in the comment section below and we’ll get back to you as soon as possible.
What is Halotherapy and How is it Used?
The term “halotherapy” comes from the Greek word “halos” meaning “salt.” In other words, it’s the use of salt as a therapy for a variety of different ailments. The idea of using salt as a type of therapy is believed to have originated in Europe several hundred years ago. Miners, who are known to contract deadly lung diseases (pneumoconiosis) like black lung and silicosis due to their exposure to mineral dust, did not experience the same effects when they worked in salt mines. Rather, salt mine workers appeared to thrive and experience great lung and skin health.
It wasn’t until 1826 that the first salt therapy facility was opened by a Polish physician named Feliks Boczkowski. At this treatment facility, he offered salt baths from naturally occurring underground brine. After World War II, Dr. K.H. Spannahel created a systemic approach to the climatological conditions of salt caves and attempted to confirm their medical effectiveness. Together, these two physicians helped to lay the foundation of modern speleotherapy (salt cave therapy).
Nowadays, there are many different types of salt therapy used to treat a variety of different conditions. Below are just a few:
Wet Salt Therapy
This therapy got its name because it involves the use of salt combined with water vapor. Wet salt therapy is one of the most common types of salt therapy and it’s also one of the easiest and most accessible for most people. It includes things like salt scrubs, salt baths, salt nebulizers, and saline solutions.
Dry Salt Therapy
This is a type of salt therapy that is completely void of moisture or humidity. This is considered the most “traditional” type of salt therapy and it includes salt caves, salt grottos, salt rooms, and salt chambers. Dry salt therapy is said to have many benefits for the body including improved breathing and softer skin.
“Speleo” is derived from the Greek word spḗlaion meaning caves. Speleotherapy is a type of salt therapy that involves going into naturally occurring caves below the earth’s surface. It’s believed that the natural climate and environment of these caves is great for treating respiratory diseases like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Active Salt Rooms
This type of salt room uses a halogenerator. This is a device that crushes pure sodium chloride into a fine powder that can be dispersed as an aerosol into the room. This is done in a confined room where the amount of salt in the air can be closely monitored by a specialist. The climate and humidity of these rooms are also closely monitored.
Passive Salt Rooms
This is similar to active salt rooms but there is no halogenerator that puts out salt particles in the air. Rather, a passive salt room simply has blocks of various types of salt including Himalayan, Mediterranean, Caribbean, or Rock salt, and they’re designed to mimic the effects of being in an actual naturally occurring salt cave. Many people claim that having large quantities of salt like this in a confined space creates positive energy frequencies and a clean-air environment. This is also a major selling point for products like salt lamps which are very popular nowadays.
Can COPD Patients Benefit from Salt Therapy?
Now that you know a little bit about what salt therapy is, you’re probably wondering if there are any proven benefits for COPD patients. Unfortunately, there isn’t a simple “yes” or “no” answer to this. Despite being around for hundreds of years, there isn’t a significant amount of research done on the topic, and many health experts have conflicting opinions about how it should be used, or if it should even be used at all.
The reason salt therapy is associated with COPD in the first place is because of its antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. Hundreds of years ago, before the invention of refrigerators, salt was used to preserve meat. This worked because salt draws the moisture out and prevents harmful bacteria from forming. Proponents of salt therapy believe this can also benefit the respiratory system of COPD and asthma patients by killing harmful bacteria that could lead to infection.
Proponents of salt therapy also claim that salt can reduce inflammation in the lungs and airways, loosen excess mucus, and reduce immune system oversensitivity, all of which are symptoms of COPD. However, most of these claims have very little evidence backing them up and many studies have even shown that salt therapy can actually exacerbate the issues above rather than help to cure them.
According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), inhaling concentrated salts (hypertonic saline) or any crystalloid solution containing more than 0.9% saline is proven to make asthma and COPD worse by irritating the airways, increasing mucus production, and causing a cough. As such, it’s important to understand the concentration of salt in the therapy you’re receiving.
Another important thing to note is that the popularity of salt therapy does not affirm its efficacy. Just turning on your TV or browsing the internet, you’re likely to see advertisements for salt therapy caves, salt lamps, and salt inhalers, and you likely hear claims that they can cure chronic illness, but this doesn’t make them true. Since salt therapy is not classified as an FDA approved medication, it’s also not regulated the way that your traditional COPD medication is.
That doesn’t make them completely immune to responsibility, however. With the advent of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), salt therapy companies have been under close watch by the FDA when it comes to the claims they make about their products. Some salt therapy companies have made wild claims about their products curing or treating COVID-19 when there is little or no evidence to suggest this is the case. If you’d like to learn more about how these types of products are regulated, read through our post about dietary supplements.
Last but certainly not least, there’s a problem with a placebo effect concerning salt therapy. A lot of the research on salt therapy has been inconclusive because it’s based on anecdotal evidence. In other words, many patients are reporting that salt therapy is beneficial to their health, but there is little evidence to suggest there was a physical change to their disease. Rather they have an expectation that something will change, so that’s what they believe. This is a great selling point for many salt therapy companies because, generally speaking, people trust the opinion of others.
Should COPD Patients Use Salt Therapy?
The most important thing to remember when it comes to alternative therapies or home remedies is to always consult your doctor first. Your doctor may have additional insight into why you should or should not be using salt therapy and he/she will help you weigh the risks. You should also do research on the specific salt cave that you want to visit. While some of these places are sanitized regularly, others are teeming with bacteria which could increase your risk of respiratory infection.
It’s also important to weigh the risks of different types of salt therapy. For example, salt therapy caves or chambers are designed to have a very high saline concentration, so it’s more likely this type of therapy could exacerbate your symptoms. Conversely, simply having a salt lamp around your home is unlikely to result in a high concentration of salt in the air, so you can assume that they’re safe to use. Just don’t expect there to be any significant benefits for managing your disease.
What Should COPD Patients be Doing Instead of Salt Therapy?
While it may be tempting to join in on a fad like salt therapy, the best way to treat your COPD symptoms is with traditional methods that have been researched for hundreds of years and backed by thousands of different studies. Let’s take a look at each of these treatment options.
An Improved Diet
Your lungs play an extremely important role in a process called cellular respiration. This is a set of metabolic reactions in the cells of your body that convert chemical energy into adenosine triphosphate (ATP). In other words, the oxygen that your lungs take in is directly linked to the breakdown of nutrients in your body and it’s absolutely necessary for your body to produce energy that it can use. One of the most important things to note as a COPD patient is that certain foods create more waste products (carbon dioxide) than others do which can make breathing even more difficult.
Regular exercise is one of the most important things you can do for your health. Whether you’re young, old, sick, or healthy, exercising improves blood flow, heart strength, and reduces your risk of life-threatening conditions like heart disease and diabetes. Pulmonary rehabilitation is a type of exercise that’s specifically designed for people with COPD and other chronic respiratory diseases because it’s focused on strengthening the lungs, reducing breathlessness, managing weight, and preventing exacerbations. Learn more about how pulmonary rehab works in this post.
Supplemental Oxygen Therapy
Another standard treatment for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is supplemental oxygen therapy. Since COPD patients have less efficient lungs than the general population, oxygen therapy is designed to supply them with a higher concentration of oxygen. In turn, this will alleviate difficulty breathing, ensure blood oxygen levels remain stable and help to prevent exacerbations and other complications. Many people are intimidated by oxygen therapy because they believe it will prevent them from getting around and living life on their own terms.
Fortunately, this is not necessarily the case. While older outdated oxygen devices like oxygen tanks and liquid oxygen tanks can be bulky and difficult to maneuver, they’ve since been replaced by lightweight portable oxygen concentrators. Unlike oxygen tanks, concentrators are battery-powered machines that never need to be refilled by an oxygen company. They’re also fully approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), so you’ll never have to worry about being restricted in where you can travel. For more information on portable oxygen concentrators, be sure to reach out to our respiratory specialists here at LPT Medical.
Smoking cessation can be one of the greatest challenges for many COPD patients. Some people have smoked for decades, so being faced with a COPD diagnosis and the task of quitting immediately, it can be somewhat overwhelming. However, it’s also the single most important thing you can do to alleviate your symptoms and ensure the best long-term prognosis of your disease. Several months ago, we wrote a three-part guide on smoking cessation and recovery so be sure to check it out if you’re interested.
It’s important not to confuse “oxygen therapy” and “inhaled therapy.” Oxygen therapy is meant to increase blood oxygen levels whereas inhaled therapy is meant to administer COPD medication via a mist called “aerosol.” By inhaling medication rather than taking it orally, you’ll experience greater benefits and you’ll experience the effects almost immediately. Inhaled therapy is usually administered through either an inhaler or a nebulizer device.
While salt therapy (halotherapy) is a trendy topic these days, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an effective treatment option for COPD. Although salt therapy has been around for hundreds of years, it’s surprisingly understudied and there is very little empirical evidence to go off of. With that being said, salt therapy has been found to be rather safe as long as you’re not exposed to it in high quantities.
Regardless of what you’re trying to change with your COPD treatment plan, you should always consult your doctor first. He/she may want to take a look at your medical history before determining if it’s safe for you to use salt therapy, or may completely advise against it if there’s a chance it could make your symptoms even worse. You should also take time to plan your day ensuring that you’re focusing on things that you know will improve your symptoms.