While the idea was mentioned by ancient asthma experts, it was once again brought to the attention of the medical community in 1850 by a famous British doctor by the name of Dr. Robert Bentley Todd. He wrote an article for the Medical Gazette in December of 1850, as described by Dr. Henry Hyde Salter in his book, "On Asthma." (1)
Salter explains how Todd really wasn't the first to come of with the idea of nervous asthma, yet he was the first to take the idea seriously, and kind of got the ball rolling that, yes indeed, asthma was a psychosomatic disorder.
In his article, Dr. Todd wrote that asthma is caused by a "poisoning" of the nervous system as it pertains to the respiratory system. The offending "poison," or "peccant matter, was referred to by Todd as the materies morbi. The result is a "spurious and morbid sense of want of breath," writes Salter about Todd's theory. "This breathlessness is the first step in the morbid phenomena. That it may have no real objective cause in the lungs themselves; that bronchospasm is a accompaniment not a cause, of the dyspnea of asthma; and that you may have asthma without any bronchial contraction whatever." (1)
Todd describes that the signs of asthma (particularly bronchospasm and the resulting dyspnea) are not what asthma is, but merely a symptom of asthma. Asthma is the poisoning of the nervous system.
The idea here is that even if you are not having an exacerbation of asthma, you still have asthma. Todd describes that asthma is a permanent condition of the mind. It is always there, yet it only shows itself some of the time.
In this way asthma is not unlike other conditions that "irritate" the nervous system to cause prominent symptoms, such as:
- Gout (Sudden joint pain that eventually goes away)
- Epilepsy (Seizure that eventually goes away)
- Asthma (Shortness of breath that eventually goes away)
Yet Salter agreed with Dr. Todd in his assertion that asthma is nervous. Salter later went on to prove, or attempt to prove, why he suspected as much.
The following is Salter's evidence that asthma was nervous in origin:
- Fatigue and mental emotion bring about an attack
- Remedies that appeal to the nervous system allay an attack, such as stramonium, antimony and chloriform.
- The periodicity of asthma. It goes away and comes back without warning by recurrence of hay fever, indigestion after dinner, expectoration after a good nights sleep, etc.
- Symptoms of asthma, such as clear urine (nervous urine), nervous headache, drowsiness, and an attack after laughter or animation. These are similar to hysteria and epilepsy.
- No organic change in the lungs during or following an attack. Post mortem exam of asthmatics shows no organic changes, or damage, to the lungs. They are essentially normal.
- Asthma is muscular in that it is caused by muscular fibre that spasm and squeeze the air passages of the lungs. Muscular disorders like this are always nervous as the nerves are connected with the mind (2)
Salter's writings on asthma originally appeared in magzines, and was so well received he was encouraged to publish his works in a book. He did such a good job by his writings that his ideas about the causes of asthma were well respected by the medical community.
His evidence that asthma was nervous continued to hold sway in the medical community until it was scientifically disproved in the 1950s. Yet it was 30 years after it was disproved -- like in teh 1980s -- that asthma experts finally gave up the idea that asthma was nervous
- Salter, Henry Hyde, "On Asthma: It's Pathology and Treatment," 1882, London, pages 8-
- Salter, ibid, pages 13-16