When the body experiences stress our nervous system can become more sensitive to pain. Stress can be in the form of emotional or mental stress, but also physical stress caused by pain itself. Stress coupled with bodily pain can create a vicious cycle that can be a challenge to break. The more pain we have, the more sensitive we can become (again) to pain. To help to break this cycle, activation of the parasympathetic or “peace” nervous system can help to decrease our pain by increasing the threshold through which we experience it, thus making us less sensitive to pain.
Diaphragmatic Breathing is the way that we breathe when we are asleep. This can create a relaxation response which can change our pain thresholds and help us to be less sensitive to painful inputs. Additionally, muscles relax more readily when we breathe more deeply, which reduces tension in our bodies, and can also help to reduce pain perception. Diaphragmatic breathing is something that we can do just about anywhere that we can focus our attention. This makes it easy to apply.
Diaphragmatic Breathing can best be learned while lying down with your feet propped up and a heating pad or hot water bottle on your lower belly. You can also practice this sitting up, however, most can find it a challenge to do the first time in sitting or standing.
- With your next out breath, gently contract your lower belly and pull it in towards your spine – gentle is key here, this should not be painful nor should it be a forced exhale.
- With your next in breath, relax your lower belly muscles and allow your lower belly to expand. Again, this is not a forced process. Instead, allow the breath to gently move into your body without making a sound.
- Repeat this process for 10 minutes or longer as needed.
- This technique can be used at night to help with getting to sleep.
- As you breathe out you can make a slight sound like “Ahhhh” with your mouth open to help facilitate the release.
- As you breathe in, do so through your nose.
Diaphragmatic breathing is a great tool to use throughout the day to help increase parasympathetic or peace nervous system tone, which can thus decrease pain sensitivity. This may also help to reduce anxiety.
Whenever pain begins to increase,m check in with your breath to be sure you are not breathing high into your chest which can make you more sensitive to pain by activating the sympathetic or stress nervous system.
I hope that you find these instructions helpful to assist you in controlling your pain and making life easier for you. These instructions should not replace the assessment or treatment by a medical practitioner or physician.
Joeng-Il, et al has shown that breathing techniques also helped to enhance muscle activation patterns in chronic low back pain patients. Study participants also found that their pain was reduced.
Joeng-Il, et al, “Effect of Exhalation on Trunk Muscle Activity and Oswestry Disability Index of Patients with Chronic Low Back Pain” June 2016, J Phys Ther Sci.