Breathing: Your gateway to better health.
Anyone who knows me also knows that I like to keep as much of my life as simple and easy to manage as possible and what could be more simple than breathing.
In many years of treating pain of all different varieties; from ankle sprains to chronic pain (sometimes lasting decades) – one technique for managing pain has always endured. That technique is just breathing and if it sounds simple, that’s because it is! Breathing and the impact it has on our body, particularly in relation to health and pain management has only become more significant as doctors continue to learn and research the best methods for keeping the body balanced and well. How we breath is important to our health and even more so in helping to reduce our pain and advance the healing processes.
What is good breathing?
I can hear all of you thinking… hmm, that sounds far-fetched but honestly, the benefits of healthy breathing are quite incredible. I am finding in our modern life, with increased stresses and less time to be mindful, that more and more of us are breathing in patterns typically reserved for an acute ‘flight or fight’ response, even when our body and mind are in no danger at all. The principle aim of breathing is to convert the oxygen from our outer environment to useable oxygen within our cells which combine with broken-down food to create energy for our many daily functions. The second function is to rid the body of carbon dioxide (which is toxic).
The current pattern of our breathing will still get oxygen in and carbon dioxide out, however, the way we breath affects the rest of our physiological processes, making a task that is vital to our health less effective and potentially strenuous.
Ideally, we should breath using the deeper, lower part of the lungs – which causes the diaphragm to contract and creates the appearance of a slight belly bulge. Concerningly, the patterns of breath that we most commonly see are wide and varied derivations of this. The most typical negative pattern that I encounter is upper chest breathing. The problem with this pattern (and other patterns that move away from diaphragm breathing) is that it has the potential to create a cascade of events, which instead of leading to relaxation and calm, triggers a stress response such as one would have when under attack.
What can go wrong?
With an improper upper chest breathing pattern, the amount of carbon dioxide increases, changing the acidity of the blood (often called acidosis), which subsequently has a cascade of physiological responses, ultimately increasing the sympathetic activity. These responses include greater muscle activity and tension preparing us to fight or run away as well as increased acidity causing the firing of nerves. The pattern of the breathing, in conjunction with the pH balance of carbon dioxide in the blood, send signals from the breathing centres in the pons of the brain (located in the brain stem) to the alarm centre, the amygdala, which activate the stress hormones to flow through the body.
These changes can manifest in a variety of ways, including increased blood pressure, greater muscular tension and changes in glucose availability and production (leading to issues such as diabetes). Basically, the brain goes in alarm mode.
All of the changes mentioned above are really important mechanisms which enable our body to recognise and avoid danger when we are actually at risk. So, the situation is like this: we are in pain and there are already alarm signals being generated in the brain. The brain does a scan of all the processes in the body and if our breathing pattern has not signalled to the brain that we are not actually in trouble, the alarm centres heighten our pain as they’re informed by our poor breathing pattern that there is a reason for the pain and we must protect ourselves. This means the body cannot access some of our natural pain relief mechanisms, as there is very little evidence that we are not actually under attack or in trouble. In turn, this can often increase the pain as the body tries to protect itself.
Breathing to change your pain
So, imagine for a moment, that you are in a situation where you have pain but instead of incorrect breathing, you have a nice relaxed diaphragmatic breathing pattern. When the brain does a scan of its processes it says “hmm the pain is there but my breathing is ok. I’m safe” and it will bring about a whole different set of physiological reactions (parasympathetic or rest and digest). Part of these reactions will be “hmm I’m in pain – but I’m not in trouble”. From here, the muscles can relax, the process of healing can begin, and the bodies’ own natural pain-relieving mechanisms can kick in.
It sounds too good to be true, I know, but I’ve used this exercise myself many times. I have taught thousands of patients to use these breathing techniques to help control and even rid their body of pain.
The concept is simple…..Call today to help reach those goals and get your pain under control and don’t forget to breathe.
Written by Ian Harris ( Musculoskeletal Physiotherapist)