Clinician Article

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for adults and adolescents with asthma.

  • Kew KM
  • Nashed M
  • Dulay V
  • Yorke J
Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2016 Sep 21;9:CD011818. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD011818.pub2. (Review)
PMID: 27649894
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  • Psychiatry
    Relevance - 6/7
    Newsworthiness - 6/7
  • FM/GP/Mental Health
    Relevance - 6/7
    Newsworthiness - 3/7
  • Respirology/Pulmonology
    Relevance - 5/7
    Newsworthiness - 5/7
  • Family Medicine (FM)/General Practice (GP)
    Relevance - 5/7
    Newsworthiness - 4/7
  • General Internal Medicine-Primary Care(US)
    Relevance - 5/7
    Newsworthiness - 4/7


BACKGROUND: People with asthma have a higher prevalence of anxiety and depression than the general population. This is associated with poorer asthma control, medication adherence, and health outcomes. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) may be a way to improve the quality of life of people with asthma by addressing associated psychological issues, which may lead to a lower risk of exacerbations and better asthma control.

OBJECTIVES: To assess the efficacy of CBT for asthma compared with usual care.

SEARCH METHODS: We searched the Cochrane Airways Group Specialised Register, ClinicalTrials.gov, and the World Health Organization International Clinical Trials Registry Platform (WHO ICTRP). We also searched reference lists of all primary studies and review articles and contacted authors for unpublished data. The most recent searches were conducted in August 2016.

SELECTION CRITERIA: We included parallel randomised controlled trials (RCTs) comparing any cognitive behavioural intervention to usual care or no intervention. We included studies of adults or adolescents with asthma, with or without comorbid anxiety or depression. We included studies reported as full text, those published as abstract only, and unpublished data.

DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS: Two or more review authors independently screened the search results, extracted data, and assessed included studies for risk of bias. We analysed dichotomous data as odds ratios (ORs) and continuous data as mean differences (MDs) or standardised mean differences (SMD) where scales varied across studies, all using a random-effects model. The primary outcomes were asthma-related quality of life and exacerbations requiring at least a course of oral steroids. We rated all outcomes using GRADE and presented our confidence in the results in a 'Summary of findings' table.

MAIN RESULTS: We included nine RCTs involving 407 adults with asthma in this review; no studies included adolescents under 18. Study size ranged from 10 to 94 (median 40), and mean age ranged from 39 to 53. Study populations generally had persistent asthma, but severity and diagnostic measures varied. Three studies recruited participants with psychological symptomatology, although with different criteria. Interventions ranged from 4 to 15 sessions, and primary measurements were taken at a mean of 3 months (range 1.2 to 12 months).Participants given CBT had improved scores on the Asthma Quality of Life Questionnaire (AQLQ) (MD 0.55, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.17 to 0.93; participants = 214; studies = 6; I2 = 53%) and on measures of asthma control (SMD -0.98, 95% CI -1.76 to -0.20; participants = 95; studies = 3; I2 = 68%) compared to people getting usual care. The AQLQ effect appeared to be sustained up to a year after treatment, but due to its low quality this evidence must be interpreted with caution. As asthma exacerbations requiring at least a course of oral steroids were not consistently reported, we could not perform a meta-analysis.Anxiety scores were difficult to pool but showed a benefit of CBT compared with usual care (SMD -0.38, 95% CI -0.73 to -0.03), although this depended on the analysis used. The confidence intervals for the effect on depression scales included no difference between CBT and usual care when measured as change from baseline (SMD -0.33, 95% CI -0.70 to 0.05) or endpoint scores (SMD -0.41, 95% CI -0.87 to 0.05); the same was true for medication adherence (MD -1.40, 95% CI -2.94 to 0.14; participants = 23; studies = 1; I2 = 0%).Subgroup analyses conducted on the AQLQ outcome did not suggest a clear difference between individual and group CBT, baseline psychological status, or CBT model. The small number of studies and the variation between their designs, populations, and other intervention characteristics limited the conclusions that could be drawn about these possibly moderating factors.The inability to blind participants and investigators to group allocation introduced significant potential bias, and overall we had low confidence in the evidence.

AUTHORS' CONCLUSIONS: For adults with persistent asthma, CBT may improve quality of life, asthma control, and anxiety levels compared with usual care. Risks of bias, imprecision of effects, and inconsistency between results reduced our confidence in the results to low, and evidence was lacking regarding the effect of CBT on asthma exacerbations, unscheduled contacts, depression, and medication adherence. There was much variation between studies in how CBT was delivered and what constituted usual care, meaning the most optimal method of CBT delivery, format, and target population requires further investigation. There is currently no evidence for the use of CBT in adolescents with asthma.

Clinical Comments

FM/GP/Mental Health

The bottom line from this review: CBT might work in adult asthma. I don't think this is news.

General Internal Medicine-Primary Care(US)

As a general internist, I find the subject of asthma and stress interesting but the study did not provide useful information. The data were not adequately blinded and no meaningful conclusions were drawn.

General Internal Medicine-Primary Care(US)

This is a worthy investigation to help with the management of asthma. While some patients are strictly adherent, others have more difficultly in adhering and may be confounded with other issues that can be addressed with CBT. While the results of this study are not definitive by any means, it may spark a new RCT with rigorous methods that can help us determine if CBT should be routinely offered to patients with asthma.


Interesting study; it seems intuitive as a psychiatrist that CBT would be useful to increase awareness of how one manages a chronic illness and what the impact of periods of acute dyspnea might be on a person. It was gratifying to see that the results suggest that it might be beneficial to open a discussion with patients about the impact of their asthma, their coping strategies and consider referral for a course of CBT-type treatment.

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