Playing a Harmonica: A Breathing Exercise for COPD

Benefits of Playing a Harmonica 

Dear Dr. Mahler: I recently read about a pulmonary rehab program that includes playing music on a harmonica in addition to usual exercises. What are your thoughts? I haven’t tried it, but it sounds like fun. Claudia from Jackson, MS Dear Claudia, I found several stories on the internet about the benefits of playing a harmonica for those with COPD.
Woman with COPD playing a harmonica

Woman with COPD playing a harmonica while breathing oxygen

There were several stories about how patients with COPD enjoyed the harmonica and found it made their breathing easier.  These anecdotes came from pulmonary rehabilitation programs at hospitals in Mountain View, CA, Austin, TX, Jacksonville, FL, and Chicago, IL. A group of patients with COPD in Colorado found their own musical group which they call the Harmonicats. The COPD Foundation lists the following benefits of Harmonicas for Health program. ♦ Learn better control of breathing ♦ Exercise the muscles that help to breathe in and breath out ♦ Strengthen abdominal muscles for a more effective cough ♦ Relieve stress ♦ Socialize with others and have fun One individual with COPD commented, “While I am playing the harmonica, I am enjoying it and not thinking about my breathing. I have found that playing different tunes has gradually improved my breathing capacity.” I also searched for studies evaluating the use of harmonicas in patients with COPD on PubMed. There is one study published in the July-August 2012 issue of the journal Rehabilitation Nursing (volume 37; pages 207-212) that compared usual pulmonary rehabilitation (16 subjects) with the same program plus harmonica playing (9 subjects practiced 5 – 20 minutes, twice a day, for 5 days per week). The authors found no differences in functional or psychosocial outcomes between the two groups enrolled in pulmonary rehabilitation. Claudia – despite the findings of this one study, you might consider trying a harmonica. Remember, it is one of the few musical instruments that is played breathing both in and out.  It is likely to help with better control of your breathing. Let me know how it goes if you decide to give it a try. Sincerely, Donald A. Mahler, M.D.

Donald A. Mahler, M.D. is Emeritus Professor of Medicine at Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth in Hanover, New Hampshire. He works as a pulmonary physician at Valley Regional Hospital in Claremont, NH, where he is Director of Respiratory Services.