Breathe Deeply to Reduce Pain

Your breathing patterns can affect your pain levels. Is this statement true or false?


Believe it or not, it’s absolutely true. This answer comes from those in the scientific world who are studying dysfunctional breathing. Research finds that fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, asthma, back pain, muscular pain, and trigger points are only a few conditions that may become worse from shallow breathing.


How do you presently breathe? To find out, take one hand and place it on your chest, then place the other hand on your belly. Breathe. Notice which hand is moving as you inhale and exhale. Is it the top hand or the bottom hand? If it’s only the top hand, it’s likely you are a shallow breather who can greatly benefit from a switch to deep breathing.


In his article “Understanding and Rehabilitating Unbalanced Breathing” in Massage Today Magazine, December 2005, Leon Chaitow, an Osteopathic and Naturopathic Doctor, describes some of the main effects of Breathing Pattern Disorders (BPD):


•  Excessive carbon-dioxide loss causes blood pH to rise, creating respiratory alkalosis. This induces increased sympathetic arousal, altering nerve function (including motor control).


•  It also encourages a sense of apprehension and anxiety, which affects balance.


•  Calcium and Magnesium ions are lost as the kidneys attempt to restore pH balance by excreting bicarbonate. This enhances neural sensitization, encouraging spasm and reducing pain threshold. Smooth muscle cells constrict, leading to vasoconstriction (and possibly altering fascial tone). Smooth muscle constriction can lead to colon spasm and pseudo-angina.


•  Due to alkalinity, the so-called Bohr effect reduces oxygen release to the cells because haemoglobin retains oxygen more effectively in an alkaline environment, thus affecting tissues and the brain, encouraging ischemia [decreased supply of oxygenated blood to a body part], fatigue and pain.


•  Ischemia encourages the evolution of myofascial trigger points.


•  Overbreathing [hyperventilation or shallow breathing] creates biomechanical overuse stresses, particularly on the accessory breathing muscles (scalenes, sternomastoid, upper trapezius, etc), as well as compromising core stability and posture.”


Maybe the list sounds incomprehensible. My only suggestion is not to skip it. Have a read. It’s a great summary of why shallow breathing causes physiological changes to occur in the body in the first place. It also gives many symptoms the body can exhibit as a result of a lifetime of shallow breathing. Do you have fatigue, neck and shoulder pain, poor balance, or anxiety? It’s all in the list!


The idea that the way we breathe profoundly affects our physical health may sound fantastical, but it’s true. Many health problems become worse because we have forgotten how to deep breathe, something we did naturally as babies.


Deep breathing has other benefits as well. It massages our organs, keeps our torso muscles limber and loose, helps us to achieve relaxation, and increases the amount of oxygen we can bring in.


The simplest way to learn how to deep breathe is to go back to the one hand on the chest and the other on the belly method. Keep breathing gently and deeply through the nose, while relaxing the diaphragm, which runs along the bottom of the ribs, until your belly, rather than just your chest, expands with your inhalation and contracts with your exhalation. Once you get the hang of it, make sure to allow your belly and chest to expand on inhalation.


Practice every day. Practice until deep breathing becomes natural and routine. Use it as often as you can, especially during times of extreme stress. People often revert to shallow chest breathing when stressed. What to do if that happens to you? Pause. Deep breathe. Then notice how the cement block of tension that was sitting on your shoulders just crumbles away.


When you make deep breathing a part of your life, not only will you experience less anxiety, muscular pain, and fatigue, you’ll also be able to deal with your day in a more relaxed and positive way.

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