Three ways to use your breath to change your pain
Updated: Jun 9
Breathing is often something that just happens, but did you know it is intricately linked to our hormonal and neurological systems and our physiology. Dysfunctional breathing can play a role in how our bodies experience pain. Here are a few ways that changing your breathing can help. The best bit.....you are in control
If you want to test out these tips, sit yourself comfortably in a chair or lie down on your bed and spend a minute or so breathing normally before you start.
Breathe through your nose
Yes, the air ends up in the same place, but breathing through your nose has a completely different effect on your body than breathing through your mouth. Have a try of both and see if you can feel the difference! Mouth breathing can have a number of negative effects on the body. When we breathe through our mouths we tend to use more muscles in our neck and even hold our jaw differently. This can lead to increased muscle tension which can be involved in headaches, jaw pain, neck pain and even refer down into the arms.
Slow your breath down
Do you know we have an optimal breathing rate? In fact a recent study found that there was a higher rate of survival post heart attack in those with lower breath rates when in hospital. This breath rate is referred to as "coherence breathing" or "resonance breathing" and is a little different for everyone. Slowing down your breath (when breathing through your nose) will activate your parasympathetic or "rest and digest" nervous system via nerve endings in your nose which detect breath rate. Conversely, when your breath rate increases this will activate your sympathetic or "fight, flight or freeze" nervous system. This leads to increased muscle tension and reduced pain thresholds.
How to find your optimal breath rate? Start in a comfortable position, and just breathe at your normal rate. Once you feel relaxed then you want to play with the number of seconds you breathe in and out for, start with 5 seconds in and 5 out, if this feels too fast, try 6 and 6.
A rate of 5.5 - 6 breaths per minute will regulate your parasympathetic nervous system.
Use your diaphragm
Your diaphragm attaches to the bottom of your rib cage. When relaxed it sits in a domed shape. When it contracts it flattens out, squashing our abdominal contents downwards to create space in our lungs to suck air in. We want as much air to get to the bottom of our lungs as we have a much bigger capacity for gas exchange (swapping oxygen into our blood to get to our body, and getting the waste product of carbon dioxide out of our body) at the bottom of the lungs than we do at the top.
Generally speaking, the top of our lungs is only supposed to be used when we need MORE air. We have sensors at the top of our lungs which activate our sympathetic nervous system - pushing us into flight or fight. Short term this increases our adrenaline levels - our resting muscle tension increases and our thresholds for pain decrease (both great if we are in a true life threatening position, not so much if we are breathing dysfunctionally at rest). Long term activation of the sympathetic nervous system can lead to high cortisol levels which is implicated in muscle weakness and slowed healing.
Breathing with your diaphragm also means more movement through your lower ribs. Stiffness in your rib cage can influence both neck and lower back pain.
To make sure you are using your diaphragm when you breathe sit or lie in a relaxed position. Place your hands on your belly below your ribs. As you breathe in you should feel your hands being pushed away by your belly. If you are sucking your belly away from your hands you aren't breathing optimally.
If you think your breathing might be influencing your pain, or you would like assistance in regulating your breathing, Emily is available for consults on Mondays and Wednesdays. Call the clinic on 9387 4999 to book.