DIAPHRAGMATIC BREATHING:  Why it is the secret weapon against chronic pain?

Dec 18, 2019 | Susan Bee | @susanmbee

man taking deep breath


The diaphragm is a dome shaped muscle that sits on top of the stomach.  It is the primary breathing muscle. Along with the intercostal muscles between each rib, it is the most efficient use of oxygen and healthiest way to breathe. Next time you can observe a baby or child, notice how their bellies move when they breathe, not their chest.  Adults, especially those in pain or stressed tend to use the secondary breathing muscles that include neck, shoulder, and  upper chest muscles.  People with chronic pain tend to hold their breath during a flare-up of pain or breathe fast and shallow, especially when anxious.  There are three basic scientific reasons to use the primary breathing muscles instead of the secondary breathing muscles especially if you are dealing with chronic pain.

Scientific reason #1:  Muscle activity:   Using the diaphragm to breathe is very efficient and gives the secondary muscles time to rest.  The neck, upper chest and shoulder muscles (secondary muscles) have many other duties throughout the day, one of which is balancing our 10-12 pound head!  Next time you go bowling, lift a 10 pound ball to get a sense of how much your head really does weigh. While you are experiencing the weight of a typical head, if you bring the bowling ball forward mimicking checking your phone or bending over a computer screen, notice the pull on your back muscles.  This is a plug to maintain good posture.   Throughout the day, be aware of your breath and practice breathing slower and deeper.  Your secondary breathing muscles will thank you and you will be less fatigued by the end of the day.

Scientific reason #2:  pH of the blood:  Think back to science class.  pH measures the hydrogen ion concentration of a solution.  The scale runs from 0-14.  A pH of less than 7 is considered acidic while greater than 7 is alkaline.  Water has a pH of 7 and blood has a pH of 7.4.  We can affect the pH of our blood simply by how we breathe.  If we hold our breath the pH of our blood decreases.  If we breathe fast and shallow much like hyperventilation, the pH of the blood increases.  By maintaining diaphragmatic breathing even during times of increased pain, helps keep the body healthy and running smoothly.  The theory is that it decreases inflammation and pain.

Scientific reason #3:  The autonomic nervous system:  There are two main branches of the autonomic nervous system; sympathetic (fight or flight) and the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and restore or rest and digest).  When one is turned on, the other is off.  People dealing with chronic pain have an activated fight or flight system.  Research done at the Pain Rehabilitation Center has shown that ten minutes of diaphragmatic breathing three times a day reduces pain and associated symptoms when done consistently for at least two weeks.

Ready to get started?  Here are some tips:

  • Begin in a reclined, comfortable position
  • Shoulders down, head supported if possible
  • Exhale first and then breathe in through your nose allowing your stomach to rise as air enters
  • Do not over-breathe.  Usually a pace of breathing in to the count of 3, pause, then exhale to the count of 3 is a good place to start.
  • Relax during each exhale.

Finding time in your day to do this simple exercise will have tremendous health benefits long term.

How has deep breathing helped you? Share your success by commenting below.

Interested in more newsfeed posts like this? Go to the Adult Pain Medicine blog.

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