Chronic pain is one of the top five reasons why adults seek medical care. It has been linked to depression, anxiety, opioid dependency, and poor quality of life. With such a high impact on our wellbeing, it is hard to understand why no one has found a cure for chronic pain.
Chronic pain is difficult to treat because there are many factors that affect pain responses. However, there is one intervention that every expert recommends to relieve pain: deep breathing techniques.
Benefits of deep breathing techniques
In addition to pain management, deep breathing techniques have several other benefits to our wellbeing. Practicing deep breathing techniques can also:
- Improve your cardiovascular health
- Increase heart rate variability
- Restore normal sleep cycle
- Decrease your stress response
Learn more about the stress response
Of the benefits listed above, finding ways to decrease your stress response will be most beneficial in relieving chronic pain.
A stress response is your body’s reaction to a perceived danger. It triggers a chain of reactions within your body, such as an immediate release of adrenaline, that prepares you to take action. Depending on the event, your heart rate and blood pressure will increase while your body’s non-essential functions, like digestion, are temporarily halted.
It can take the body anywhere from 20-60 minutes to return to a “normal” state of being after the stress response is activated.
How does deep breathing affect the stress response?
Deep breathing can modify your response to chronic pain, which the body perceives as a constant state of stress. It activates the parasympathetic nervous system to counter the sympathetic nervous system (aka, the stress response) that is triggered during pain.
Some experts believe chronic pain patterns to be an overly sensitive sympathetic nervous system response. Therefore, it would make sense why we should learn how to desensitize this response by activating the parasympathetic nervous system.
Other techniques that have been shown to be effective on the stress response include: mindfulness meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, the 4-7-8 method, and yoga.
Learning how to breathe through your pain
While the act of breathing is automatic, the technique of deep breathing only works when we draw attention to our breathing rhythm.
Allow the breath to guide you and learn how to breathe through your pain in 4 steps:
1. Practice breath awareness
Begin by laying in a comfortable position with one hand on your chest and the other on the bottom of your rib cage. Which hand rises more often? Does your lower hand rise and fall with your breaths?
Allow the rhythm of your breaths to be the grounding center of your thoughts. Begin by practicing for one minute and gradually increase to 5-10 minutes per day.
2. Increase the exhale
Did you know that the motion of exhaling indicates to the brain that you can relax? By increasing the duration of your exhale, you can activate the parasympathetic system that combats the stress response.
Do this by inhaling through your nose for four seconds and exhaling through your mouth for six seconds. This is known as resonance breathing.
3. Pace yourself using slow deep breaths
Steady breathing rhythms can lower your respiratory rate, which has been linked to the perception of pain and the sympathetic nervous system.
Use a breath count or a voice-guided app to learn how to pace yourself. If you find that following a count produces more stress, then focus on lengthening your exhales naturally.
4. Add mental visualization
Mental imagery is a powerful, but underutilized, tool. Using visualization during breathing sequences can be effective in reducing your stress response and pain-centered focus.
Try timing your breaths to the flow of the ocean waves or a personal mantra.
We understand that self-care may fall towards the end of your To-Do list, but there is a significant amount of research that supports the use of deep breathing techniques for your mental and emotional wellbeing. Prioritize yourself in the coming months, and let us know how you did. What types of visualization/imagery techniques work well for you? Also, what additional Healthy Living - Experts articles would you like to see? Let us know.
Written for Fitness Blender by Kayla Covert, PT, DPT
Board-Certified Neurological Clinical Specialist
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