The smooth muscle that lines the lung's airways, like the appendix, serves no function. When it contracts, it can pinch off airflow and cause asthma attacks. But doctors can now relax it permanently, and offer relief to two million Americans for whom no medication can stop frequent asthma attacks.
The Alair Bronchial Thermoplasty System consists of an electrode catheter connected to a controller unit. A respiratory specialist inserts the electrode and zaps the muscle with a small electric current. The heat from the shock permanently relaxes the muscle to open the airway. In trials, the Alair treatment cut asthma attacks by 32 percent and hospitalizations for respiratory complications by 73 percent. It has even allowed some asthmatics who couldn't previously job more than a few blocks to run marathons.