Slow Breathing May Alleviate Pain

A just-published study tells us that the breathing practiced by yoga aficionados when done in conjunction with meditation may help manage chronic pain. This research, published in the journal Pain, was performed by scientists from Arizona State University and from the Barrow Neurological Institute of Phoenix. The aim of the researchers was to take a direct look at the benefits of controlling the rate of breathing in regard to physical and emotional responses to pain.

Moderate Pain

The scientists subjected participants to short pulses of heat on their palms, meant to cause moderate pain. The subjects were then asked to report on their experiences in terms of three separate aspects: their perceptions of the strength of the pain, the unpleasantness of the pain, and the impact of this pain on their emotional states.

Researchers instructed the participants to time their breathing to an ellipse that appeared on a screen placed in front of them. The ellipse gave no indication of speed so worked as a perfect medium for eliminating subject bias. The researchers were able to control the exact amount of pain stimulus administered as well as the breathing speed. This enabled the researchers to compare the pain ratings with normal breathing as compared to the same ratings during slowed breathing.

Pain Perception

The study was small, consisting of 27 participants with a confirmed diagnosis of fibromyalgia who were known to suffer from chronic pain, plus a healthy control group of 25 women of the same age. Researchers found that slow breathing most benefited the healthy women, though both groups reported a reduction in all three aspects of pain perception during slowed breathing.

There were exceptions. Some of the fibromyalgia group seemed not to derive any benefit from slow breathing. The distinguishing factor seemed to be a positive outlook. Those women who reported that they were on a "steady diet" of positive emotions, who in spite of pain, felt they had the ability to remain positive, found relief from pain while breathing at half their normal speed.

Lead author of the study, Alex Zautra, the Foundation Professor of Psychology at ASU commented, "Slow breathing provides a natural means for dampening activity in the stress system of the brain, leading to a reduction in pain."

Countering Balance

Zautra explains that as the breathing slows, the parasympathetic response increases. This, he says, provides a countering balance to the sympathetic nervous action that is triggered by pain and which serves to generate feelings of nervous tension and anxiety. "A greater state of calm induced with slower breathing also opens the mind to a greater capacity to feel emotions other than pain, providing perspective, flexibility and choice in the regulation of inner states … slow breathing reduces the dominance of the fight/flight response within us extending the calm influence of parasympathetic activation to allow for better emotion regulation and cognitive shifts from helplessness to action."

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