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Breathe Well & Reduce Pain

We breathe all day, every day, so why should you give a thought to it now? In my last blog, I discussed how breathing impacts every part of your body, from your automatic systems like digestion, circulation and sleep, to emotional responses like anxiety, alertness and stress.

With my own experience of chronic pain, I can empathise with how it seriously changes your life and it’s not a subject to consider lightly. I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia in 2013, this condition has caused severe full-body pain, exhaustion and many other side effects, such as brain fog, depression and sleep issues.

But how can pain link to how well you breathe?

You only have to look at a sleeping baby or pet and notice how their whole abdomen rises and falls with their breath - consider how it is not constricted to the chest. When we’re stressed, anxious or, in this case, experiencing pain, often the breath becomes shorter and limited to the chest leading to the overuse of the accessory muscles - the upper chest, shoulders and neck.

Now think about that deep diaphragmatic breath, that when you inhale, the whole rib cage expands (front, back and sides!). As mentioned in my last post, this type of breathing moves the whole diaphragm, massages the organs and improves brain oxygenation. Why is this good?

This input tells the body, ‘hey, you’re all good bro, you’re safe’, and then gives us outputs such as slowing the heart rate and lowering blood pressure - this could reduce chronic pain.

What does this really mean?

Well, by using diaphragmatic breathing, our body doesn’t feel threatened, our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) can down-regulate, reducing the ‘flight or fight’ response, and instead, you can enjoy the ‘rest and restore’ response of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), leaving you feeling calmer and more relaxed.

How does it work?

When you’re stressed, the SNS signals the adrenal glands to release hormones called adrenalin (epinephrine) and cortisol. These hormones, together with direct actions of autonomic nerves, cause the heart to beat faster, the respiration rate to increase, blood vessels in the arms and legs to dilate, the digestive process to change and glucose levels in the bloodstream to increase to deal with the emergency. This is a healthy but sudden response as you want it to occur in emergency situations; however, with stress rising (threat levels increasing), this sudden short-term response, which is now occurring long-term and the continuous activation of the nervous system and its relation to other bodily systems is problematic.

If you’re in a constant state of threat (stress/worry/anxiety about anything) over a prolonged time, it’s no wonder that chronic pain exists; your body is reacting in the only way it knows how.

Moreover, cultural expectations of having a flat stomach (or the cue ‘to engage your core’) mean people are tightening their muscles, holding their breath or sucking in for long periods (like a whole yoga class), which causes shallow breathing and this doesn’t just stop here. Physios are seeing this movement pattern continue in our daily lives without us even realising it, for example, women are picking up a pencil and tightening their whole abdomen. Often, this leads to shallow breathing and pelvic floor muscles constantly over-activating, leading to leakage and many other effects.

I like to think about the diaphragm like a balloon and it moves fluidly with deep breaths, but if you put a tight corset around it, AKA tense your stomach, it would bulge on either side, affecting your air supply, pelvic floor, and the list just goes on and on.

How can we change this?

Using the full diaphragm may feel uncomfortable initially, especially if you’ve never done it before. It’s just like learning something new and building up a new muscle. Eventually, with time and practice, it becomes second nature - reflexive! *heavenly harp music plays*

Taking deeper breaths not only increases lung and oxygen capacity but, as mentioned before, also massages our internal organs, the heart, lungs, gastrointestinal tract and reproductive organs, improving digestion and waste disposal.

To summarise

Giving our body better inputs, such as better breathing practices, leads to our brain feeling safer to function better and reduce pain. There is so much information out there and I would recommend doing your own research. From my experience of learning to breathe better and OTHER practices (looking at the brain and body holistically), my chronic pain has significantly reduced, with the occasional mini flare-up when I am under intense stress.

I do not believe this is a cure but simply a part of a big puzzle. Do you want to try some breathing exercises? For the whole month of February, we’re exploring our theme, ‘Breathe Well’, try a two-week free trial today and bring awareness to your breathing patterns.

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