With the serious problems stemming from the opioid epidemic, doctors and patients are increasingly looking for safer alternatives to prescribing pharmaceuticals for pain management. Breathwork has the potential to be the answer for some. Multiple studies have found that slow, deep breathing could reduce the perception of chronic pain or help patients better cope with physical discomfort. The pain pathway is mediated by norepinephrine, therefore if we can balance cortisol and decrease inflammation, the perception of pain can also decrease.
Breathwork can also help alleviate back pain in particular, said Vranich: “Your diaphragm attaches right to the part of your spine where people have back pain,” she explains. “If you’re not using your diaphragm to breathe, you won’t get as much blood flow and movement in that space.” Trigger points along our spine can also be activated by those cortisol spikes mentioned earlier, exacerbating pain. A 2017 literature review backs this idea up (no pun intended): “Athletic trainers and physical therapists caring for patients with chronic, nonspecific low back pain should consider the inclusion of breathing exercises for the treatment of back pain,” it reads.
There are a number of techniques that can help you get started with breathwork. Vranich recommends trying diaphragmatic breathing, which involves expanding and contracting your belly as you inhale and exhale. Other approaches to breathwork include box breathing, 4-7-8 breath, 2-1-4-1 breath, and alternate-nostril breathing. Experiment with different options to see which works for you.
As more people search for simple, effective self-care techniques, it’s no wonder that breathwork has surged in popularity. Not only does it have the science to back up its perceived benefits, but it’s something we can practice anytime, anywhere, and at absolutely no cost. Talk about a breath of fresh air.