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Taking a Breather: OSU Medical Center Helps Athletes with Asthma Get Back on the Field

Imagine doing something you're good at, something you love, maybe something you feel you were meant to do -- and suddenly you're gasping for air. There's a tightness in your chest. You can't catch your breath.

Unfortunately, that's a condition many athletes face when they compete. Known as exercise-induced bronchospasm (EIB), a form of asthma, the condition is more common in athletes than in the general public. But many athletes don't realize that they have asthma, and don't understand what is happening to them. 

Recently, Jonathan Parsons, MD, associate director of the OSU Asthma Center, led a major research study of EIB. The study, a collaborative effort with the OSU Sports Medicine Center, found that, of 107 OSU varsity athletes from 15 different sports, 40 percent had the condition.

“The vast majority had no history of asthma or breathing problems, so this was new knowledge for them,” says Dr. Parsons, associate professor of internal medicine, in OSU Medical Center’s Division of Pulmonary, Allergy, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine,

“EIB has been shown to occur in athletes in higher proportion than in the normal population, but no one had looked at this population of college athletes closely before our study.”
 
“It’s Easier to Breathe”
Charlie Billingsley, a former player on the OSU lacrosse team, is one of the athletes who participated in the study. "Sometimes I’d feel a tightness in my chest and couldn’t play as hard as I wanted," he says.

Following his diagnosis of EIB, Billingsley was treated by John Mastronarde, MD, director of the Asthma Clinical Research Center at OSU Medical Center. With medication and education, Billingsley was able to take the field with less worry about another asthma attack. "There’s definitely less tension in my chest, and it’s a lot easier to breathe,” he says.

Billingsley benefitted from the unique expertise in asthma available at OSU Medical Center. OSU is one of 20 centers across the country designated an Asthma Clinical Research Center by the American Lung Association.

Cathy Benninger, CPN, is director of education at the Asthma Center. She works with athletes to alter their warm-up routines and exercise habits to minimize the risk of an EIB attack. “Every athlete is different, so patients need individualized education and treatment,” she says.

Investigating New Treatments
Top athletes are not the only people to benefit from the knowledge being gained at the OSU Asthma Clinical Research Center. Studies have shown that exercise may help to control asthma attacks or reduce their severity for many patients. The Asthma Center is investigating the benefits of exercise on asthma as part of a study funded by the National Institutes of Health.

“We think it may strengthen the immune system and reduce asthma,” notes Dr. Mastronarde. "The goal would be to prescribe a regular exercise regimen for individual patients, which may allow them to take fewer medicines or a lower dose of medicine to control their asthma and improve their quality of life.”

Doctors still don’t know exactly what causes EIB, but data from the ongoing research may provide answers.

“We know inflammation is integral to causing asthma,” says Dr. Mastronarde. “The question is, ‘Do people with who have asthma only when they exercise have an increase in inflammation, or is the asthma being triggered by other things?’”

Dr. Parsons is documenting inflammatory agents from the athletes to see if there’s a pattern. In the meantime, having a diagnosis has made a difference for Billingsley.

“I’m actually glad to know I have asthma, because I can do something about it. It gives me an extra few years to be on top of my lacrosse game,” he says.

For more information, please visit www.asthma.osu.edu