Breathing is very powerful technique for overall health and natural chronic pain relief. Most chronic pain sufferers have been introduced to diaphragmatic (belly) breathing only, but there are several different breathing techniques that can help for chronic pain relief and improve your sleep and function.
Do you feel a cold sensation in your hands and feet?
Have you noticed yourself yawning?
Do you feel tense?
Have you notice breathing through your mouth at night?
If you answer yes to any of those questions, you are in the right place. Dysfunctional breathing can lower your pain threshold, impair motor control, and increase anxiety, stress, and pain. So, it’s time to learn about breathing for pain relief using these simple steps to enhance your healing journey.
Usually, breathing in chronic pain is described as an
More Sympathetic tone = more pain (flight or fight)
More Parasympathetic tone = less pain (Rest, relax -digest)
This is true, but it is not as simple as it sounds. Breathing is a much more complex and incredibly powerful tool for natural chronic pain relief.
You are impacting the 4 significant categories via proper Breathwork:
1. Neurology: stimulating the cortex, midbrain, pons, medulla, cerebellum, and autonomic nervous system.
2. Biomechanics: stimulating respiratory muscles, airway, lungs, and pulmonary blood vessels
3. Biochemistry: balancing the chemical composition of the blood, like O2, Co2, and nitrous oxide.
4. Psychophysiological: regulating your emotions like anger, love, sadness, fear, stress, etc.
Overall, people with chronic pain have lower heart rate variability and baroreceptor sensitivity than people without pain. There are inverse relationships between acute pain and blood pressure(BP) in Pain-Free people. What does this mean? You are a healthy person walking in the woods, and you step in a hole, twist your ankle, and fall over. Your BP goes up; your HR goes up; your respiration goes up, → the pain goes up → you can move to the next stage of survival. But in chronic pain people, this relationship between heart rate variability and pain has altered. This means when a regular pain person exercises, their HR goes up, and the pain goes up →, making central sensitization and IMPAIR PAIN MODULATION. This means people with chronic pain feel they have built up the wrong alarm system via central sensitization.
Autonomic nerve stimulation is beneficial in people with acute pain but has mixed data for chronic pain people. Research indicates a strong association between high pain INTENSITY and low parasympathetic tone in acute pain people; however, it is NOT associated with the PRESENCE of chronic pain. This means you need a different approach to people with chronic pain vs. people in acute pain.
It is essential to learn the correct breathwork that benefits people with chronic or persistent pain. I have some guidelines that can help you combat chronic pain via proper breathing.
Breathing Tip #1: Always Breathe in and out through your nose
Studies have shown that nose breathing increases the production of nitric oxide. Nitric Oxide is an important cellular signaling molecule that aids many beneficial physiological processes, including expanding blood vessels, improving blood flow, and protecting organs from damage(1).
Furthermore, nose breathing, not mouth breathing, increases alpha brain waves, which are the brain waves produced during relaxation or meditative states. It may reduce bronchoconstriction, can help to prevent hyperventilation and improve cerebral blood flow and Autonomic Function.
Additionally, Your nose is your first line of defense, so use it. Your nose is lined with hair follicles that capture invading germs and viruses along with nasty dirt and dust. The membrane of your nose has immune-fighting antibodies.
You may have heard, “ Smell the rose and blow the candle.” Mean breath in through your nose, but breathe out through your mouth. Encourage nasal breathing at all times until you are at the maximum physical capacity, which means you are exercising hard; reserve this breathing for that purpose only.
Breathing Tip #2: Practice 360 Breathing for Pain Relief.
This practice will improve the biomechanical part of breathing.
There is a considerable emphasis on belly breathing, also called diaphragmatic breathing. The dome-shaped diaphragm is your big breathing muscle, located just under your lungs on the bottom of the ribcage. When you inhale, the diaphragm moves down and expands, creating a vacuum effect that allows your lungs to fill with air. As you exhale, the diaphragm moves up and pushes air out. This deep, full-belly breathing directs your breath to the lower lobes of your lungs. This is a beneficial practice to relieve chronic pain but not enough to cure physical changes in the nervous system that are done by chronic pain.
As you breathe, expand the front, back, and lateral parts of the thorax. First, fill up the belly, then the lower ribs, and the last part of inhalation fill up the chest by elevation. Learn to breathe just the left side, right side, and both sides of the thorax; this will improve your breathing awareness. You can use the elastic TheraBand or scarf to wrap the navel, lower the rib cage, and then under the arm area to provide some resistance. You can advance them to different positions first and then incorporate them with the movements.
If you are a beginner at breathing work, it is crucial to master belly breathing in different positions. Click the link for more information on stomach breathing in different positions.
Breathing Tip # 3: Practice variation in the speed, time, and hold of Breathe work to relieve pain.
Breathing deep and long allows you to absorb more oxygen with less exertion; it also boosts your immune system, relieves emotional problems, relaxes the mind, brings more clarity, and releases toxins. Additionally, deep and slow breathing improves the tone of the parasympathetic nervous system, which enhances repair, relaxation, digestion, and nourishment. Remember, it is normal to pause between inhalation and exhalation. Furthermore, don’t forcefully inhale or exhale unless advised by specific breathing exercises by the yoga teacher.
When you practice breath-hold, it stimulates the midbrain, which stimulates the global flexor tone in the body. Deep inhalation (<6 breaths per minute) stimulates the Pons, which stimulates the global extensor tone of the body. Forced exhalation and blocked inhalation stimulate the medulla, increasing the global flexor tone.
Breathing Tip # 4: Keep the inhalation and exhalation ratio identical, or exhalation can be slightly longer than inhalation for pain relief
Inhaling and exhaling symmetrically, to the exact second count, allows for the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide (CO2) in your body. The buildup of CO2 enhances the response of your vagus nerve when you exhale, which promotes relaxation and calm in your mind and body. This stabilizes the biochemical balance in the body.
If you are a beginner to breathing work, practice 4 seconds inhaling, 2 seconds holding, and 6 seconds exhaling; practice 2 minutes: 3 times a day, eventually building to Studies that have proven efficient the 4-7-8 breathing technique for 15 minutes daily in chronic pain patients.
Breathing Tip # 5: Practice breathing exercises consistently every day.
The human body needs food, water, and air to live. We can go three weeks without food, three days without water, but only 3 minutes without air. Yet, we take breathing for granted when it is more vital than food or water. So give breathing the attention and effort it deserves. Practice these simple steps every day. Train your body to breathe through your nose, into your belly, slowly with symmetrical inhalations and exhalations. Walk-in nature where more oxygen is in the air.
This will build strength in the respiratory muscles, gain awareness and improve coordination.
It would be best if you focused on regulating the breath rather than focusing on uncomfortable sensations. With time and consistent practice, it can become more and more powerful and help rewire your brain from focusing on pain. This leads to experiencing more pleasant sensations instead. If you don’t feel the effects of this technique right away, stick with it and practice it a couple of times a day for several minutes. You have mastered the critical tool for Natural chronic pain relief.
Dysfunctional breathing can negatively affect your pain level, and targeting all the elements that play a role in chronic pain is the best practice for healing. Working with a physical therapist, an established pain specialist, a pain psychologist, or a therapeutic pain specialist is the most effective way to incorporate all the best practices.
To summarize this article:
Breathing can be a powerful tool for natural chronic pain relief. However, it must be targeted, individualized, and practiced consistently.
A therapeutic approach will help you control your pain and offer lasting relief. Additional guidance, support, and training are required to put all these best practices together in a way that allows you to be consistent with an effective pain management routine.
My 20-week Therapeutic Pain Relief Program incorporates all of these essential steps to give you an all-in-one neuroscience-based approach to managing your pain along with breathwork.
(1) Douillard, J Body Mind, and Sport. Three Rivers Press. New York.
(2) Mehling WE, Hamel KA, Acree M, Byl N, Hecht FM. Randomized, controlled trial of breath therapy for patients with chronic low-back pain. Altern Ther Health Med. 2005;11(4):44-52.
(3) Anderson BE, Bliven KCH. The Use of Breathing Exercises in the Treatment of Chronic, Nonspecific Low Back Pain. J Sport Rehabil. 2017;26(5):452-458. doi:10.1123/jsr.2015-0199
(4) Groessl EJ, Liu L, Chang DG, et al. Yoga for Military Veterans with Chronic Low Back Pain: A Randomized Clinical Trial. Am J Prev Med. 2017;53(5):599-608. doi:10.1016/j.amepre.2017.05.019