Breathing for Pain Relief


By Anna Burns, PT, DPT

Infinite Potential Physical Therapist


One of the simplest things you can do to manage pain is to breathe.  Have you ever noticed that when you’re concentrating, exercising, or in pain, you tend to hold your breath?  Our diaphragm is directly connected with our nervous system, which is where pain signals are processed. When our nervous system is on high alert with pain, stress, anxiety, or fear, engaging our diaphragm can calm the nervous system from “fight or flight” status to “rest and digest” status, thus decreasing pain and stress levels.  It’s one of our best tools to manage pain; no side-effects, no out-of-pocket costs!


For various reasons over the years, we have adopted a couple of different ways of breathing that circumvent the diaphragm.  One is breathing with the upper chest; this breath is “emergency” breathing, a very shallow pattern that we perform when we are stressed or scared. Breathing like this only perpetuates the “fight or flight” cycle.  Check out this video for an example of Emergency Breathing.


Another way is “belly breathing,” in which we distend our bellies outward on purpose; there’s nothing to breathe with in your belly; your lungs and diaphragm are under your rib cage!  While the belly rising is normal with inhalation, it should not be consciously distended. Check out this video for an example of Belly Breathing.


Optimal breathing engages our diaphragm, a large muscle that sits under our lungs and over our stomach.  By breathing into this area that touches all aspects of the rib cage, the diaphragm contracts downwards to expand the surface area for oxygen intake in our lungs.  When we exhale completely, the diaphragm relaxes upwards to push out the de-oxygenated air in our lungs. To activate your diaphragm, breathe in through your nose. Check out this VIDEO for an example.  Visualize a balloon expanding at the bottom of your rib cage as you inhale; breathe in pain-free existence.  Exhale slowly through your mouth as completely as you can until you have no air left; breathe out all the pain.  Pause for a second, and then inhale again through your nose. Try not to bulge out your belly on purpose or move your spine.  In fact, I love practicing this laying on my back. So take a mindful moment (or several!) throughout your day to breathe. It will help quiet your pain signals by calming down your nervous system.


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