How to Use Breathing Techniques to Control Chronic Pain

Breathing techniques for chronic pain
The shift in breathing that happens when we’re in pain—or get relief from pain—is undeniable. We gasp and then hold our breath when there’s a sudden, sharp pain. We let out a long sigh when a painful episode ends. However, if the pain lingers, our breath quickens and gets more shallow and we may even hyperventilate if the intensity feels unbearable.

But just as our respiration changes in response to pain, slowing and deepening our breathing can have the opposite effect, taking the edge off the pain. (There’s a reason pregnant people often practice Lamaze breathing before going into labour.) A 2017 review in the journal Pain suggests pain affects breathing via increasing its flow, frequency, and volume. The researchers found an association between paced slow breathing and reduced pain.

Medical professionals and yoga therapists swear by simple breathing practices, such as mindfully observing inhales and exhales and then gradually lengthening the exhales, for decreasing pain and distress in people in chronic pain.

“We may not be able to make the pain go away, but we can learn to work with it and to start to reduce our stress signals, says Shailla Vaidya, MD, CCFP, C-IAYT, an emergency medicine physician and certified yoga therapist who practices mind-body medicine for stress resilience in Toronto. “Fighting pain is so much worse. We tense up more and go into a stress feedback loop, which increases pain signals. Working with the breath is a way to bring us out of that stress response so we can build new patterns of function and gain a sense of agency back.”

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