Playing The Harmonica Helps Lung Disease Patients Breathe Easier

After 12 weeks, members of the Harmaniacs, who are part of a pilot program for COPD patients, reported improved quality of life.

By Laura RiceDecember 7, 2018 11:37 am,

The harmonica is an ideal instrument for musical novices: it’s inexpensive, portable, doesn’t require tuning and is easy to learn. These factors made it a perfect instrument for a newly-formed group in Dallas, the Harmaniacs. But these musicians have one more obstacle to overcome: how to play around their breathing tubes.

Mary Hart, a registered respiratory therapist at Baylor Scott & White in Dallas, formed a musical group of COPD patients called the Harmaniacs. COPD – chronic obstructive pulmonary disease of the lungs – makes it hard to breathe. Hart believes playing the harmonica could help the patients breathe easier and she recently presented her findings at the annual meeting of the American College of Chest Physicians.

“Harmonica-playing in COPD groups dates back all the way to the ‘90s,” Hart says. “There wasn’t any research that supported that it would really help someone with COPD. Primarily we were looking at improving muscle strength.”

There was one stumbling block to the plan, though, Hart says. The researchers and patients had to learn how to play the harmonica before the experiment could begin.

“When I started talking to people about being a part of this research they first said ‘I don’t play the harmonica. What am I going to do? I don’t read music,’” Hart says. “We have a music therapist that worked with us and I’ll just have to spill the beans, she didn’t play the harmonica either. She played the guitar. She had to learn, too.”

Hart evaluated how far each patient could walk in a six-minute time period, measured their lung function and respiratory muscles and asked them about their quality of life, all to form a baseline. Then, the Harmaniacs trained for the next 12 weeks.

“After the 12 weeks, we found out they had a significant improvement in their their breathing muscles, which relates to them being able to do more and be more active and social and more independent,” Hart says. “Also their six minute walk showed they were able to walk over 50 meters more than they could [before[.”

Although the research has finished, the Harmaniacs play on, and will perform in a holiday concert this month. The musical group has given the COPD patients an outlet to interact and socialize with other patients, which keeps the musical therapy going.

“The socialization they receive from playing together and laughing and being with other people that wear oxygen or have to stop playing because they’re coughing or getting too short of breath, that definitely brings a point of the socialization improving,” Hart says. “They’ve been doing this now since they joined the group over a year ago. We finished our research but they haven’t finished playing the harmonica. I’m very proud of them.”

By Brooke Vincent.

Support for Texas Standard’s ”Spotlight on Health” project is provided by St. David’s Foundation.