Harmonica therapy lets Good Samaritan patients breathe easier

March 1, 2015


Pulmonary rehabilitation patients at Lafayette, Colo.-based Good Samaritan Medical Center are making music together as they exercise their breathing muscles and improve their lung function. Patients report that harmonica playing exercises added to breathing therapy group sessions in November are proving to be a high note in their ongoing battles to breathe easier.

Keiko Broken Leg-Kinn, left, and Debbie Lytle play harmonica to exercise their diaphragms and improve their breathing during a pulmonary therapy session at Good Samaritan Medical Center in Lafayette, Colo.

"You know, it has been an amazing and surprising adventure to see just how effective the harmonica is and how much it actually helps you work the muscles that you need to use to get your breathing under control," said pulmonary rehab patient Debbie Lytle, of Thornton, Colo. Lytle, who has Stage 4 chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and emphysema, has been in Good Samaritan's pulmonary rehab maintenance program for five years.

The therapy classes help people with COPD and other breathing problems to get shortness of breath under control, to increase their energy and to prevent flare-ups, said respiratory therapist Felice Heffenger. The harmonica "provides expiratory resistance, which creates some back pressure. This allows the airways to remain open instead of collapsing before all of the air has been released. Playing the harmonica also exercises the diaphragm, which is actually the main muscle needed for breathing," she said.

The harmonica therapy is part of the broader pulmonary rehabilitation program that includes physical exercise, education, other breathing exercises and support to help patients cope with chronic lung disease. Good Samaritan pulmonary patients typically attend a 10-week, 20-session program; and then can choose to continue with a maintenance program as long as they'd like to.

Since incorporating the harmonica into the program, "we have witnessed quite a bit of airway clearance," said Heffenger. "Some (patients) have said their cough is stronger and they are able to clear their airways more easily. They enjoy playing their harmonicas together as a group. It makes their breathing exercises more fun."

Keiko Broken Leg-Kinn of Northglenn, Colo., has been in pulmonary rehab since June for COPD. She said that although "I'm definitely not musical and can hardly keep a beat … I enjoy participating in the program. It's something new and fun. … (and) I seem to be not as out of breath" as compared to before harmonica therapy, and "I can't wait to see how much I improve with it."

Lytle said, "Learning the harmonica has taught me how to relax and take my time to help myself breathe at a good pace and not overwork the lungs, where they get stressed from coughing. And, most of all (I have learned) patience."

Lytle, whose favorite song to play on the harmonica is "You Are My Sunshine," said in the past, pulmonary therapy would sometimes exhaust her so much that she had to spend the rest of the day recovering. Now, with harmonica therapy in the mix, she's noticed she has more endurance, and can go home afterwards and do household tasks.

Lytle and Broken Leg-Kinn said having COPD has required them to adjust their lifestyles. "You just lose so much air and become short of breath when you do things," explained Lytle.

Broken Leg-Kinn said, "I have to give the therapists credit for all their hard work. Without them I would not be where I am now. I have come a long way because of them. They have taught me different breathing techniques and how to cope with the disease and have given us so much advice and support."

Lytle said, "I really think that this program has saved my life. … (the therapists) actually care about us and are working with us to help maintain a good lifestyle that we can be comfortable with and that works for us."


Copyright © 2015 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2015 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.