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Harmonicas for Health rehabilitation program is ‘exercise for the lungs’

A program at Allegheny Health Network is working to help patients breathe easier through music: patients spend 10-12 weeks learning to play the harmonica because playing it can help increase lung capacity.

In its early stages, the Harmonicas for Health program is proving to be beneficial, said Kevin Nauer, manager of pulmonary rehabilitation for Allegheny Health Network.

Harmonicas for Health was created by a respiratory therapist working with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) patients. The COPD Foundation owns the program and sells and trains other health care institutions on it. Allegheny Health Network secured grant money to purchase the program and use it for COPD patients enrolled in pulmonary rehabilitation.

“When you can’t breathe, it can be stressful,” said Becky Jordan, a respiratory therapist with Allegheny Health Network who was recently working with patients at West Penn Hospital in Bloomfield. “The more you try to catch your breath, the more stressful it can become.”

Shortness of breath is one of the most common reasons people go to a hospital. In the U.S., up to 4 million emergency room visits each year involve not being able to breathe properly, according to WebMD, an online medical information source.

Trying to eliminate or lessen the stress of not being able to breathe is the goal of the therapy, which teaches patients to use harmonicas to mimic pursed lip breathing. Pursed lip breathing is a technique where patients are taught controlled breathing through inhalation through their nose and slow exhalation through pursed lips.

Patients relax their neck and shoulders, and then breathe in through their nose, slowly counting to three. They pucker their lips as if they were going to whistle. Keeping that shape, they breathe out gently through their mouth, counting to five. It’s important to breathe out for longer than they

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