Breathing Exercises for Chronic Pain

By Sarah Anne Shockley, Guest Columnist

Can your breathing patterns actually affect your pain levels?

Over several years, and born from the desperation of having no effective pain remedies, I discovered some simple breath exercises which helped decrease my acute pain levels and increase my overall well being.

In the fall of 2007, I contracted a particularly severe case of Thoracic Outlet Syndrome (TOS). Briefly stated, the area between my collarbones and first ribs collapsed, squeezing the nerve ganglia, muscles, arteries, and veins that have to fit through an already narrow breathing space.

This caused a myriad of symptoms, including burning, aching, shooting pains, and tingling in my hands and neck, and a reduction of mobility and function in my neck, arms and hands.

Over the next several years, I tried various forms of physical therapy and a number of pain medications, none of which improved my TOS and most of which exacerbated the squeeze in the thoracic area, inflamed the nerves, and swelled the tissues even more, causing more pain.

Finally, I was pronounced permanently disabled and left to my own devices.

The only thing I'd found that helped keep my pain levels stable in all that time was walking. So, walking slowly for about 20-30 minutes a day and staying as quiet and calm as I could became the sum total of my pain management protocol.

After several years of stoically putting one foot in front of the other, both figuratively and literally, I thought, there has got to be something else I can do here.

I meditated before my injury and knew that calm meditation was often good for reducing stress as well as increasing overall health, so I thought it might help my nerve pain. It certainly couldn't hurt.

Except that it did.

The meditation forms I was familiar with called for sitting with an erect spine and breathing deeply and evenly.

Unfortunately, sitting in any one position for more than a few minutes increased my pain. Trying to keep my spine straight increased my pain. Breathing deeply increased my pain.

So much for meditation. Every so often, I would try again to see if anything had changed, but got the same results.

Yet something good did come out of it. In the process of trying, I began to pay attention to my breathing, at least for a few moments. Eventually, I noticed something startling.

Every time I began my brief little excursions into meditation, I noticed that I was holding or restricting my breath, as if I was afraid to breathe at all.

So I began watching my breathing patterns and putting my attention on my breath at various times during the day, whenever I thought of it.  I didn’t do anything else at first, I just paid attention.

What I noticed was that I was taking very shallow breaths and then stopping my breath in between them. I don't mean that I was filling my lungs with air and holding my breath. I mean I was barely breathing. Since breathing deeply increased my pain, I was unconsciously trying not to breathe.

This is understandable, and maybe it's something that you do too. If you check in with your breath right now, are you inhibiting its flow in order to try not to feel pain? Just notice that.

The problem with holding back the flow of breath is that it blocked the natural flow of oxygen in the body, and made the body tenser. I realized that I might be inhibiting the body's natural healing process by inhibiting the breath.

So, I started some experiments.  The first thing I did was notice my breath at different times during the day.  Then, I started consciously taking an easy breath and releasing it a few times calmly and freely. I didn't try to breathe deeply since that increased my pain, I just simply released my breath to flow more naturally.

The second thing I did was stop using my breath to push against pain. That meant I had to let pain be where it was without as much resistance from me. It was as if, by withholding breath from the pain - trying not to breathe in the painful area - I could force it to leave, or die, or I wouldn't have to feel it.

The third thing I did was to begin to breathe with the pain. In a sense, I included pain in my breath, rather than trying to stop it by not breathing in the painful area. I first imagined breathing around the pain, and then I imagined breathing through the pain, and then I imagined breathing with the pain, as if pain were breathing with me at the same time.

In short, I allowed pain to have breath.

This seems counterintuitive to most of us. We want to stop our pain, so we stop the flow of our breath. But it doesn't seem to work that well. Pain is already part of our experience, so resisting it doesn’t usually bring good results and it creates more stress and tension in the body.

Accepting pain for what it is and breathing with it helped me create a great deal more relaxation in the body, and thereby began to relieve the acute levels of pain I was in.

It seems like a paradox, but I found that giving pain permission to be where it was, so to speak, and allowing it breath, actually helped it to begin to move on.  I also noticed increased energy in my body overall, and I felt better emotionally.

After having worked with breath for several years now, I can say that, for me, these little breath awareness exercises have made a great deal of difference in my pain levels and overall well-being.

Sarah Anne Shockley is the author of The Pain Companion: Practical Tools for Living With and Moving Beyond Chronic Pain.

Sarah also writes for her blog, The Pain Companion.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.