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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.