By: Damaris Ababio, PTA, MSCS, Barnabas Health Ambulatory Care Center 

You may be wondering, how does breathing and pain go hand in hand? Good question! Before we delve into how breathing affects pain, let’s talk more about breathing in general. We all breathe because it’s essential to our very existence. Thankfully, breathing is an involuntary reflex that happens without conscious effort.

Now, take a quick moment to observe your breathing, is it shallow? Do you only see your chest and shoulders rising when you inhale? If so, that’s okay. However, with education and self-awareness, we can harness the power of proper diaphragmatic breathing to address things like pain, stress and anxiety.

Diaphragmatic breathing is breathing that engages your diaphragm, which is an important, and key, respiration muscle, that is shaped like a dome that contracts and relaxes with breathing. Although we don’t have to think about breathing, we do have to put forth a conscious effort when it comes to diaphragmatic breathing. This is because when we suffer from chronic pain, anxiety, and stress, breathing “our normal” way is not enough to produce a therapeutic response.

Deep breathing has been proven through research to quiet the sympathetic nervous system, which is our “fight or flight” response to a perceived threat, whether internal or external. With deep breathing, we activate our parasympathetic nervous system which allows the brain to “cool down” or relax after a period of stress of danger. When we experience pain, this can lead to stress and anxiety, which causes our brain to be on high alert, causing muscle tension, grumpiness, and more pain. However, you can take advantage of harnessing your own breathing, which is free of charge and readily available, to help you cope with chronic pain, stress and anxiety.

Here are a few tips to help you breathe diaphragmatically:

Lying down:

  1. Place a pillow under your knees and close your eyes.
  2. Place one hand on your upper abdomen, right under your ribcage and your other hand on your chest.
  3. Now take a slow and deep breath through your nose, allow your abdomen, lungs, and ribcage to expand. Do this while keeping your chest still. Do not be surprised if you feel stiff and tight with the first couple of reps, your muscles will gradually respond to this type of breathing with practice.
  4. Gently tighten your abdominals as you exhale slowly through your pursed lip.

In sitting:

  1. Sitting comfortably with an upright posture and your knees bent (feel free to use a pillow to support your back)
  2. Repeat steps 2-4 above.

Try practicing diaphragmatic breathing for about 5 minutes daily.

Damaris Ababio, PTA, MSCS, is a Physical Therapist Assistant at the Barnabas Health Ambulatory Care Center. She treats patients with neurological and orthopedic conditions as well as balance and gait deficits. Damaris completed her education at Essex County Community College in May 2011 and has been working at the ACC since October 2011. Damaris is currently a Multiple Sclerosis Certified Specialist (2018) and an LSVT BIG certified therapist (2020). She also serves as a member of the International Organization of Multiple Sclerosis Rehabilitation Professionals and the American Physical Therapy Association. When she’s not working, Damaris enjoys spending time with her family, participating in philanthropic work or carrying out DIY projects.

The experienced and compassionate staff at Cooperman Barnabas Medical Center Rehabilitation centers, with locations in West Orange and Livingston, offers adults and children the specialized care they need to resume an active life after surgery, injury or illness. Staff is committed to providing patients with the most advanced services in a safe, caring and soothing environment. For high-risk patients who are unable to visit in person, telehealth is an option. Patients do not need a prescription for physical therapy services.

For more information, or to schedule an appointment, call 973-322-7500.

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