New thermal treatment reduces asthma attacks

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SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah hospital is offering a novel heat therapy designed to prevent asthma attacks. The treatment reduces if not stops the need for steroid medications and trips to the emergency room.

Trent Aiken has had asthma most of his life both day and night, and it has been serious enough to need Lifeflight twice. He's twice been on a ventilator and he's awakened almost every night for the past 42 years with an asthma attack.

In the procedure called bronchial thermoplasty, Interventional pulmonologist James Pearl inserted a small bronchoscope through Trent's nose, feeding a catheter directly into his lungs. The tip expands, contacting the walls of the affected airways, then delivers precision bursts of thermal energy. The applied heat softens the muscles, reducing the spasms that trigger asthma attacks.

"He should feel much better and hopefully can be off his steroids which cause long term side effects," Pearl says.

Trent's profession with Rio Tinto takes him around the world into remote areas where medical help is not immediately available. Dr. Pearl says "he'll feel much safer now working in many of these outback locations." His asthma should be well under control. And his sleeping pattern has changed dramatically.

"I'm sleeping completely through the night now where before I wasn't," Trent says. "Every morning I would wake up needing my medication and now I'm not!"

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Asthma attacks are usually brought on by:
  • Hypersensitivity to inhaled allergens
  • Reaction to a person's environmental stimuli or infection, typically viral
  • A mixture of allergic reaction and reaction to intrinsic stimuli
  • Aspirin, either by ingestion or use of items containing aspirin (such as Aspir cream)
  • Exercise or overexertion
  • Varying occupational situations, where airborne particles (such as paint fumes) are inhaled on work sites, at office buildings, etc.

According to Dr. Pearl, "I've had one patient who has been treated who use to come into the hospital every two or three months. She hasn't been in the hospital now for year, and her family says she looks much better. She's breathing easier. She's off steroids. That's impressive."

Almost eighty percent of those treated are experiencing a better quality of life. Recent studies show fewer hospitalizations, fewer E.R. visits, and fewer lost days at work and school. And although studies are still underway, the data seems to support a lasting effect, not just one to five years but perhaps for the lifetime of the patient.

"I was a believer after the first treatment," Trent told us. "I was a believer after the second treatment. And now after this third and last one, I'm convinced it was the right thing to do."

In all three procedures, Trent was under local anesthetic for only an hour. And he returned home that same day after each treatment.

In Trent's words, "the thermoplasty appears to treat not just the symptoms of my asthma but the disease itself."

The therapy is currently FDA approved for those eighteen years or older. Studies are underway now to see if may be applicable for children as well.

While bronchial thermoplasty is reimbursable under Medicare, private insurance companies are hesitant to pick up the cost. Trent is paying the $20,000 for his three treatments out of his own pocket.


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Ed Yeates


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