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Breathing Away Pain

Breathing is the fastest way we have available to reduce pain by changing the chemistry in our bloodstream, improving posture, and relieving undue strain on structural joints, but it’s more difficult to do than you probably think.  The key is to breathe with your diaphragm comfortably at a rate of 3-6 breaths a minute. In the following report we’re going to explore how these three things are affected by proper breathing and how each of them in turn affect the pain that you feel in your body. We will also cover some of the benefits of breathing with your diaphragm and how to test whether you are or not.  


Chemistry of Pain


When your body is experiencing physical, chemical, or emotional stress there are hormones that are released to help regulate the “fight or flight” response.  These hormones include cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline among others.  The initial release of these hormones inhibits the pain response, but chronic presence of these hormones will actually magnify the intensity of the pain response. We know that increasing the amount of oxygen and decreasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the blood will reduce the presence of these hormones.  


When you breathe with your diaphragm you pull air down into the bottom of your lungs.  The lungs are pyramidal in shape, small on top and big on bottom.  They're also three dimensional, which means that the bottom half of the lungs have about 7 times the gas exchange capacity as the top half.  Just changing which part of the lungs you breathe into will drastically increase the amount of oxygen you're able to pull in with each breathe as well as the amount of carbon dioxide you're able to expel.  More oxygen and less carbon dioxide means less stress hormones.  We'll soon be releasing a follow up report on all of the other health benefits of reducing the amount of stress hormones chronically present in your bloodstream.  It's a long list.


Posture and Pain


The adrenal system has two general types of triggers, chemical and neurological.  The primary part of your neurological system that affects the adrenal release of cortisol is known as the sympathetic nervous system.  This is the subset of the autonomic nervous system that is responsible for what is commonly referred to as the “fight or flight” response. This part of the nervous system originates in the spinal cord in the section starting at the base of the neck and extending to just below the rib cage. When you have poor posture this section of the spine is bent forward too much.  This forward tension of the spinal column puts tension on the nerves leaving the the spine at those levels.  When a nerve is interfered with in any way, whether it's stretched, touched, compressed, an impulse is triggered.  By stretching the nerves leaving the spinal cord at the levels where the sympathetic nervous system originates the “fight or flight” impulse is stimulated.  When you have poor posture your stress response is on a little bit all the time.  If you can improve your posture you'll reduce that chronic level of stress and the associated hormones.  Lowering the stress response will result in a lower intensity of any pain expression.


How Breathing Relieves Strain On Structural Joints


Breathing with your diaphragm will activate the largest and most integral core stabilizing muscle in the body.  The diaphragm is a massive muscle that is anchored around the entire base of the ribcage and extends all the way down to L4, the second to last vertebra in the low back.  When the diaphragm is properly used in breathing it is properly activated as a stabilizing muscle.  The inverse is unfortunately also true.  When the diaphragm is engaged the lumbar spine is stabilized in its neutral lordotic curve which in turn gives an appropriate foundation for the mid back and neck. Posture is improved, contributing to the benefits discussed above.  This stabilization of the core also stacks the kinetic chain.  In other words the head, shoulders, hips, knee, and ankles are stacked on top of each other which mechanically minimizes the strain on all of those joints and the muscles that are associated with them.  If a joint, ligament, tendon, or muscle involved in that chain is damaged and causing pain, relieving the tension on that tissue in this way will reduce and in some cases eliminate the pain being expressed.




Breathing is both a thermometer and a thermostat for stress.  To illustrate this do an exercise right now.  Set a timer on your phone and count how many breaths you take in 15 seconds.  


Try to not change your breathing pattern.  


Multiply the number of breaths by 4 and this will give you the number of breaths you’re taking in a minute.  In a physical at your doctor's office a count between 12-14 is considered normal.  Optimal is 3-6 breaths a minute.  If you’re breathing 15 breaths a minute or more then your stress hormones are higher than they should be.   If you're breathing more then 6 breaths a minute you could be doing better.  So now you know if you’re breathing too fast now lets look at another factor…


Sit up straight and tall and take a deep breath right now... odds are that your shoulders will rise and fall with your breath.  This means that you’re breathing with your neck and shoulders and NOT with your diaphragm.  The diaphragm is a very important and often inhibited and neglected muscle.  One of the unique things about the diaphragm is that can be controlled both consciously and subconsciously.  This is a good and a bad thing.  Good because when it’s not working the way we want it to we can take conscious control of it.  Bad because since it can be overridden by the conscious mind, if it is otherwise disengaged the subconscious mind won’t go back to it until the conscious mind does so.  When we start having to sit all the time in pre-school or kindergarten our diaphragms are compressed.  A compressed muscle loses about 70% of it’s force.  When the subconscious mind tries to use the diaphragm, but it’s mechanically unavailable because it’s being compressed, the brain goes to plan B, lift the shoulders to create space in the lungs in order to inhale.  The result is that your breathing into the top of the lungs as opposed to in the bottom of your lungs.  The bottom ½ of the lungs are 7x the size of the top ½ due to the pyramidal shape of the lungs.  If you breath into the bottom of your lungs you will get up to 7x more oxygen into your blood stream and 7x more carbon dioxide out with each breath.  Increasing oxygen into the blood will instantly reduce the amount of stress hormone that is present and getting rid of that much more carbon dioxide will reduce the acidity of the blood, improving the pH to allow for more effective chemistry in all of your systems.  


When we sit it is very difficult to maintain proper posture and breath the way we’re supposed to breath.


Improving posture will normalize the physical strain on the sympathetic nervous system and eliminate the inappropriate stimulation of the stress response.  Proper posture is not something that you can just decide to have.  It’s something that has to be trained and reinforced.  Particularly due to the fact that we sit most of the day.  There are some classic postural patterns that most people fall into.  Rolled in shoulders, heads jutting forward, hips imbalanced and often tilted forward.  If you’re breathing in your diaphragm and still need help with posture we can help, click here.


Training yourself to once again breath with your diaphragm will almost instantly improve your posture and having good posture will make it easier to breathe with your diaphragm.  If you have proper posture and breathe in your diaphragm you are no longer inappropriately firing the nerves of the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) and you’re reducing the presence of stress hormones Cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline.  Your breathing slows down, your heart rate slows down, all of your muscles relax a little, inflammation is reduced, and you’re body is able to go into a state of “rest and digest” from which you can make better long term decisions about everything, including what to eat, when to exercise, how much water to drink, and you’ll actually sleep a lot better.


Activating the diaphragm for some people is very easy, they have not “forgotten” the connection and just need to be reminded that’s is there and practice using it on a regular basis.  The majority of people seem to not fall into this category.  Of the thousands of people that I’ve encountered in my practice less than 10% can breathe in their diaphragm without using some accessory muscles.  The other 90% need some sort of manual intervention to activate the all important muscle.  As soon as the diaphragm is activated, regardless of the source of the pain, the patient reports a decrease in pain, in many cases a complete elimination of the pain.  The difference between reduction and elimination of pain seems to correlate very closely with the source of the pain and it’s relationship mechanically with the diaphragm.  For example someone with knee or shoulder pain will almost always experience a significant reduction in pain, while someone with low back pain will often experience an elimination of the pain completely.  


I’ve developed a simple technique to quickly and effectively activate the diaphragm.  This is done most effectively in person, but you can click here for a video training on how to do it yourself at home.  


Even though the exercises are effective 100% of the time in increasing the effectiveness of diaphragm breathing they are not always enough to get the patient to be able to be 100% proficient.  If you would like to have a complementary evaluation and coaching session on how to activate your diaphragm you can click this link and schedule a time.


Your success in important to me.  Getting your diaphragm activated and practicing using it will reduce chronic stress and pain in your body.  Chronic stress is the cause of all disease, from the common cold to cancer.  If you’re managing  stress properly in your body then your immune system will be strong enough to fend off invaders and your body will be able to effectively heal and regenerate itself like it’s supposed to.  

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