Back pain, knee pain, any pain really, can be frustrating, especially when all you want to do is move optimally. Aches that many of us have experienced during physical activity can be caused by poor mechanics and muscular imbalances. This is why it's advised to work with experts like physical therapists and certified trainers to prevent nagging, minor injuries from holding you back; however, if the discomfort you're feeling is due to internalized stress, one way to minimize this is by implementing breathing techniques for pain release into your day-to-day routine.
Stress can take the form of physical pain—full stop. And one way to deal with stress and thereby help to alleviate physical pain it causes is through breathwork, which has been found to positively impact your central nervous systems. Larger-scale studies are still needed to better understand the relationship between breathing and pain, and to be clear, we're not saying that focusing on your breath will magically erase it; however, focusing on your breath can help to send a direct message to your body to slow down and be steady.
- Leada Malek, PT, DPT, CSCS, SCS, board-certified sports specialist and physical therapist based in San Francisco
"Pain is your brain's way of communicating with you that there is a need to protect the body from a threat," says Leada Malek, PT, DPT, CSCS, SCS, a board-certified sports specialist in San Francisco. The messages from your brain may not always accurately depict tissue damage or injury, she says, but instead are often influenced by other factors like (you guessed it) stress and anxiety.
"Because of neuroplasticity in the brain, it then can pattern these thoughts, and this 'alarm system' can set off every time 'threat' arises," says Dr. Malek. This is where breathwork comes in. "Mindfulness meditation is thought to work by refocusing the mind on the present and increasing awareness of one's outer environment and what they are feeling within," says Dr. Malek. Mindfulness and breathwork together "can stimulate the vagus nerve and the parasympathetic nervous system—rest and digest—to kick in, so the sympathetic nervous system—flight or fight—can down-regulate," she further explains.
Breathing techniques to prevent and alleviate aches and pains
When we experience stress, anxiety, and increased pain, we often revert to breathing from our chests with tense necks instead of from the diaphragm with relaxed shoulders, says Dr. Malek. Breathing from the chest results in shortened breaths and combined with pain, which often results in faster, shorter breathing, can increase your pain response, says Dr. Malek. So it's important to be mindful and to take full, deep breaths from your diaphragm when you experience pain and as you begin to implement the following breathing techniques.
Regulating your breath in a position that is the most comfortable to you is important to down-regulate your nervous system and will help you feel more calm and controlled, and as a result, decrease your pain response, adds Dr. Malek. As always, these breathing techniques are meant to be a tool to alleviate pain, but if your pain does not subside, it's advised you consult a physician or physical therapist for a proper assessment.
1. Supine diaphragmatic breathing
Begin by lying on your back with your knees bent, and place one hand on your stomach and one hand on your chest. Inhale through your nose for two to three seconds as you try to make your stomach rise while keeping your chest as still as possible. Exhale through your mouth for three to four seconds, emptying the air from your diaphragm. Your stomach should lower back down to the starting position. Repeat for a total of five to 10 breaths, trying to minimize your chest rising.
2. 360 degrees breathing
Lying or standing, place a large resistance band around your lower ribs. As you breathe in, try to inhale into the band, filling your lungs from 360 degrees, not just forward from your chest, Dr. Malek instructs. Try to minimize shallow breathing from your chest, and remember to intentionally and slowly inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth with pursed lips. Your inhale should take two to three seconds and your exhale should take three to four seconds. Repeat for a total of five to 10 breaths, trying to minimize your chest rising.
Dealing with back pain? Try this 13-minute yoga flow to alleviate it:
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