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Most bodyworkers are aware that breathing deeply helps relaxation. In fact, many guide their clients toward diaphragmatic breathing during a session to complement their work. Elevating the therapeutic utility of deep breathing even further, research demonstrates that breathing technique influences more than relaxation levels. Based on this groundbreaking study, bodywork practitioners have every reason to incorporate breath-work into every session for chronic pain. In addition, this study encourages practitioners to teach their clients diaphragmatic breathing techniques to reduce chronic pain in between bodywork visits.

Research led by Arthur Craig, Ph.D. from Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in collaboration with investigators in the Department of Psychology at Arizona State University was published in the January 2010 edition of Pain, the journal of the International Association for the Study of Pain. This study demonstrated that controlled breathing at a slowed rate can significantly reduce feelings of pain. More details about their research are described below:

  • The pain responses of women with the chronic pain condition fibromyalgia was measured and compared to healthy women of the same age.
  • When the women performed slow breathing, their reactions to a moderately painful stimulus – brief pulses of heat from a probe placed on the palm – were reduced.
  • Both groups of women reported less emotional discomfort and lower pain intensity when they slowed their normal breathing rate down by half.
  • Although the benefit was greater and more consistent among the healthy study participants than those with fibromyalgia, even women with fibromyalgia benefitted from slowed breathing.

According to lead researcher Dr. Alex J. Zautra, a psychology professor at Arizona State University in Tempe, these findings suggest that breathing techniques could offer an additional way to deal with fibromyalgia or other types of chronic pain.

Along with a wide range of holistic disciplines, yoga and meditative practices teach deep, slow, diaphragmatic breathing techniques. Based on Zautra’s hypothesis and other health teachings, the benefits of deep and slow breathing are likely due to one or more of the following:

  • Nervous system balance – Slow breathing helps improve the balance between the sympathetic nervous system (the fight-or-flight response that raises heart rate, blood pressure and perspiration during stress) and the parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for the relaxation response).
  • Oxygenation – Shallow, rapid breathing restricts the amount of oxygen available to circulate in the bloodstream, while deep diaphragmatic breathing increases oxygen intake. Deep, slow breathing more than doubles the blood’s oxygen quantity.
  • Muscle hypertonicity – Shallow, rapid breathing tightens the neck and shoulder muscles, easily leading to a cycle of chronic pain in these areas.

As most bodyworkers know, helping your clients breathe slowly and deeply by using their diaphragm muscle can improve their response to massage therapy. However, practitioners who advise diaphragmatic breathing as a daily practice can play an even greater role in their clients’ quest for defeating chronic pain. By taking the time to educate chronic pain sufferers about deep, slow breathing’s proven role in pain relief, massage therapists can influence their clients to practice this kind of breathing any time they notice discomfort.

Editor’s Note: For more information about diaphragmatic breathing, read Diaphragm Strengthening for Neck & Shoulder Pain.

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