Dr Chris Ellis DPT, m|wodS, C-PS, SSN
One of the simplest exercises someone can do when in pain is breathe. It sounds a bit silly, but you’d be surprised at how effective it is. Stay with me.
First, let’s have a brief discussion about pain. Pain is a warning signal from the brain to change something. It can be acute or chronic, it doesn’t matter; the nervous system is sensing something is a threat. In other words, your flight or fight mechanism is turned on (the sympathetic nervous system).
If you take a few minutes to lay down and concentrate on your breathing, it can stimulate the relaxation response (parasympathetic nervous system). The alarm bells are turned off. If you can lay down in a manner that is pain free, it’s even better. This alone is a powerful tool, but let’s go over some other reasons breathing can reduce pain or tension. Breathing helps reperfusion. Through our daily life, we develop waste products. This could just be the stress of life, or working out, there is always waste product and it’s normal. This is flushed out through our lymphatic system. Blood brings new oxygen to muscle tissue and this process occurs through the cardiopulmonary system. When there is a painful area in the body, there is often congestion in the area, i.e. waste product build up that needs to be decongested. Have an ache in the back? Spend a few minutes deep breathing and it may reduce that pain simply by decongestion and reperfusing oxygenated blood to the area.
You also have gentle, non-threatening movement. When you inhale, your hips anteriorly tilt and your spine extends. When you exhale, your hips posteriorly tilt and your spine flexes. Reteaching the brain that the spine and hips can move without pain can do wonders for pain reduction, especially in situations such as chronic pain or when the body has been sensitized.
Gas exchange is also a benefit. So many of us through our stressful work/life environments, develop a habit of shallow breathing. When you don’t fully exhale, you leave used up air in the lungs in the form of carbon dioxide. When you don’t fully inhale, you don’t get to take advantage of all that good oxygen.
There are conditions like COPD and asthma that lead to dysfunctional breathing patterns. In some cases, the diaphragm becomes inactive and the person develops chest only breathing. Then all the muscles that attach to the ribs like the pecs and neck muscles have to do the work by actively pulling the ribs up. This can lead to all kinds of fun neck and shoulder pain. The belly and diaphragm are supposed to move when you breathe. Ever notice a woman’s neck muscles when they are wearing a tight dress or corset? They have temporarily induced chest only breathing by restricting the belly.
So how do you do it correctly? Get comfortable on your back, take a deep breath in through your nose, then exhale through your mouth 3 times as long as you inhale. As you inhale, your belly should rise, then your ribs should expand both on your sides and at your chest. Think of the abdominal cavity as a canister that expands and contracts. Try it for at least 2 minutes. Notice areas of your body that may feel stiff and see if anything changes.
This is a great way to wind down the day. As a society, we are great at stepping on the gas pedal. Rushing to work, energy drinks, Starbucks everywhere, work, then go right to the gym, etc. What we are not great at doing, is turning on the brakes and slowing down. Put deep breathing into your bedtime habit, and even the fact that you are disengaging from technology, and spending a few minutes on yourself can be a game changer. Who knows, you may sleep better.