Bronchial thermoplasty for people with asthma

Review question

We reviewed the effects of bronchial thermoplasty in people with asthma.


Asthma is a chronic condition in which people experience symptoms of breathlessness, wheezing, coughing and chest tightness due to airway inflammation and airway muscle contraction. With inhaled treatments, including bronchodilators (drugs that relax airway muscle and so open up the airways) and steroids (which treat underlying inflammation in the lungs), symptoms usually can be controlled. However, for some people, asthma cannot be adequately controlled with these drugs, either because they are truly resistant or because they do not take them.

The muscle in the airways of the lungs is thicker in people with asthma than in people who do not have asthma. During asthma attacks, these muscles tighten, making it hard to breathe.

Bronchial thermoplasty is a relatively new procedure that reduces the amount of muscle bulk in the airways of the lungs. A long flexible tube, called a bronchoscope, is passed down into the lung under direct observation, and the walls of specific areas of the lungs are heated to 65 degrees Celsius. This causes some of the muscle to break up, making it harder for the muscles to tighten.

Generally, three sessions of treatment are given.

Study characteristics

We found three trials comparing groups of adults treated with bronchial thermoplasty versus adults who received standard medical treatment or a "sham" (simulated) bronchial thermoplasty treatment.

Key results

These studies showed moderate improvement only in quality of life of patients treated with bronchial thermoplasty and in the number of asthma attacks (exacerbations) that they experienced. In addition, patients treated with this procedure had more respiratory problems than patients who received the alternative intervention during the period when they were undergoing treatment, resulting in increased risk of hospitalisation due to a respiratory symptom during this phase, but not afterward.

Quality of evidence

Confidence in the results of this review is moderate because two of the studies had no sham intervention and there were differences regarding the characteristics of patients and the comparisons performed. More studies should be conducted to determine whether the observed effect and safety of bronchial thermoplasty are durable over the long term, and to identify whether particular patients can be identified who could benefit most.

This plain language summary is current as of January 2014.

Authors' conclusions: 

Bronchial thermoplasty for patients with moderate to severe asthma provides a modest clinical benefit in quality of life and lower rates of asthma exacerbation, but no significant difference in asthma control scores. The quality of life findings are at risk of bias, as the main benefits were seen in the two studies that did not include a sham treatment arm. This procedure increases the risk of adverse events during treatment but has a reasonable safety profile after completion of the bronchoscopies. The overall quality of evidence regarding this procedure is moderate. For clinical practice, it would be advisable to collect data from patients systematically in independent clinical registries. Further research should provide better understanding of the mechanisms of action of bronchial thermoplasty, as well as its effect in different asthma phenotypes or in patients with worse lung function.

Read the full abstract...

Bronchial thermoplasty is a procedure that consists of the delivery of controlled radiofrequency-generated heat via a catheter inserted into the bronchial tree of the lungs through a flexible bronchoscope. It has been suggested that bronchial thermoplasty works by reducing airway smooth muscle, thereby reducing the ability of the smooth muscle to bronchoconstrict. This treatment could then reduce asthma symptoms and exacerbations, resulting in improved asthma control and quality of life.


To determine the efficacy and safety of bronchial thermoplasty in adults with bronchial asthma.

Search strategy: 

We searched the Cochrane Airways Group Specialised Register of Trials (CAGR) up to January 2014.

Selection criteria: 

We included randomised controlled clinical trials that compared bronchial thermoplasty versus any active control in adults with moderate or severe persistent asthma. Our primary outcomes were quality of life, asthma exacerbations and adverse events.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two review authors independently extracted data and assessed risk of bias.

Main results: 

We included three trials (429 participants) with differences regarding their design (two trials compared bronchial thermoplasty vs medical management and the other compared bronchial thermoplasty vs a sham intervention) and participant characteristics; one of the studies included participants with more symptomatic asthma compared with the others.

The pooled analysis showed improvement in quality of life at 12 months in participants who received bronchial thermoplasty that did not reach the threshold for clinical significance (3 trials, 429 participants; mean difference (MD) in Asthma Quality of Life Questionnaire (AQLQ) scores 0.28, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.07 to 0.50; moderate-quality evidence). Measures of symptom control showed no significant differences (3 trials, 429 participants; MD in Asthma Control Questionnaire (ACQ) scores -0.15, 95% CI -0.40 to 0.10; moderate-quality evidence). The risk of bias for these outcomes was high because two of the studies did not have a sham intervention for the control group.

The results from two trials showed a lower rate of exacerbation after 12 months of treatment for participants who underwent bronchial thermoplasty. The trial with sham intervention showed a significant reduction in the proportion of participants visiting the emergency department for respiratory symptoms, from 15.3% on sham treatment to 8.4% over 12 months following thermoplasty. The trials showed no significant improvement in pulmonary function parameters (with the exception of a greater increase in morning peak expiratory flow (PEF) in one trial). Treated participants who underwent bronchial thermoplasty had a greater risk of hospitalisation for respiratory adverse events during the treatment period (3 trials, 429 participants; risk ratio 3.50, 95% CI 1.26 to 9.68; high-quality evidence), which represents an absolute increase from 2% to 8% (95% CI 3% to 23%) over the treatment period. This means that six of 100 participants treated with thermoplasty (95% CI 1 to 21) would require an additional hospitalisation over the treatment period. No significant difference in the risk of hospitalisation was noted at the end of the treatment period.

Bronchial thermoplasty was associated with an increase in respiratory adverse events, mainly during the treatment period. Most of these events were mild or moderate, appeared in the 24-hour post-treatment period, and were resolved within a week.