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Ease Your Pain with Deep Breathing

Being in pain is stressful, and stress makes the pain feel worse—it’s a vicious cycle as old as humanity. What if, instead of relying on a growing list of drugs, you could gain a measure of relief from something as close and familiar as your breath?

From Stress to Tension to Pain

People in pain often tense their muscles in reaction to the pain. They tend to breathe in a very shallow, disordered pattern, and can frequently hold their breath without realizing it. These unconscious protective reactions disrupt the oxygen/carbon dioxide balance in respiration and actually increase the level of pain.

Research has shown that focused deep breathing techniques—breathing from the abdomen, filling the lungs completely and more slowly, often as part of meditation practice—can significantly reduce sensations of pain, whether from acute injuries or chronic conditions like arthritis and fibromyalgia. Consciously changing your breathing appears to soothe the sympathetic nervous system (which has been releasing stress hormones in response to the pain) and to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which counters the stress response, slows the heart rate, and promotes feelings of calm. When muscles and mind can relax, feelings of pain can fade.  

We’re Designed to Breathe Deep

Deep breathing—also called diaphragmatic breathing, abdominal breathing, belly breathing, or paced respiration—focuses on moving the abdominal muscles to gain full oxygen exchange in the lungs (oxygen in, carbon dioxide out) and increase the supply of oxygen to your brain and other tissues. It’s the way our bodies were designed to move air efficiently.

Yet for many of us, deep breathing from the abdomen feels unnatural. We’ve learned to tense our stomach muscles to hold our belly in—after all, a flat tummy is considered youthful and attractive. We expand our chest instead of our belly to take a breath, and although it’s inefficient, eventually that shallow breathing comes to feel normal. Shallow breathing stimulates the sympathetic nervous system (which controls the “fight or flight” stress reaction) and sinks us into a low, chronic state of bodily stress.

How to Breathe for Relief

Deep, focused breathing is a fast-acting, safe, natural, and no-cost way to help you treat and manage pain, especially chronic pain. It can induce a relaxed frame of mind, making you concentrate on your breath instead of your pain, and it can reverse the physical symptoms of stress—like shallow breathing—that actually makes your pain feel worse.

Deep breathing as a practice can differ a bit, depending on whether it’s part of a meditation practice, yoga, or other discipline. Most simply, deep breathing includes the following steps:

  1. Choose a quiet space where you can concentrate on just your breathing. Sit upright in a sturdy chair, feet flat on the floor (or lay down on a firm surface, using cushions to support your head, back, and/or knees, if needed).
  2. Place your left hand on your breastbone and your right on your stomach. Inhale deeply through your nose for a count of 5 or so, drawing the air in by expanding your abdomen. Your left hand should remain stationary while the right one should move with your belly.
  3. Hold the breath for a moment, a count of 2 or so.
  4. Exhale completely through your mouth for a count longer than the inhalation.
  5. Repeat a few times, then relax. If you feel lightheaded, breathe normally and the feeling should pass. Start gradually, practicing for a few minutes twice a day, and work up to 15-20 minutes 3-4 times a day, or as often as you need to.

If your pain increases, lasts more than a short time, or makes breathing itself difficult, don’t just sit there—call 911 or see your healthcare provider as soon as possible.

Pain and stress can reinforce each other in a vicious cycle, especially if you feel helpless to escape. The simple act of deep, focused breathing can be an effective way to break out of that cycle—easy to do, free, 100% natural with no side effects…and as close as your next breath.



These articles were our resources on this topic—you can use them to learn more about how deep breathing can help with pain and stress relief. Check them out!

Angie Finlay, “Using your breath to reduce the pain and stress of arthritis,” ArthritisLiving.Today, Apr. 2016. Accessed Apr. 4, 2017.
Becki A. Hein, MS, LPC, “Focused Abdominal Breathing to Reduce Pain and Anxiety,”, Aug. 20, 2012. Accessed Apr. 12, 2017.
Center for Cognitive Therapy, “Bio-Behavioral Management of Chronic Pain,” Accessed Apr. 12, 2017., “How breathing deeply can reduce pain,” Feb. 2, 2010. Accessed Apr. 3, 2017.
Danae Moore, “‘Chest Breath’ vs. ‘Belly Breath’—What’s the Deal?”, Mar. 11, 2015. Accessed Apr. 12, 2017.
David DiSalvo, “Breathing and your brain: 5 reasons to grab the controls,”, May 14, 2013. Accessed Apr. 4, 2017.
Harvard Health Publications, “Relaxation techniques: Breath control helps quell errant stress response,” Mar. 18, 2016. Accessed Apr. 3, 2017.
Jesse Cannone, “Deep breathing for pain relief,”, Sep. 13, 2010. Accessed Apr. 4, 2017.
Lesley Alderman, “Breathe. Exhale. Repeat: The Benefits of Controlled Breathing,”, Nov. 9, 2016. Accessed Apr. 4, 2017.
London Pain Clinic, “Diaphragmatic Breathing and Chronic Pain.” Accessed Apr. 12, 2017.
Mayo Clinic News Network, “Blow the pain away: breathing tips to bring relaxation,” Jul. 17, 2015. Accessed Apr. 12, 2017.
Tracy Miller, “The Drug-Free Alternative to Pain Meds,”, Sep. 7, 2012. Accessed Apr. 12, 2017.
Vijay Nad, MD, “Take Two Breaths and Call Me in the Morning: An unexpected source of relief from arthritis pain, Huffington Post, Sep. 25, 2013. Accessed Apr. 3, 2017.


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