New Study—Yogic Breathing Helps Reduce Chronic Pain

A recent study, published in the Journal of Pain, indicates that deep, yogic breathing not only offers an effective technique for relaxing mind and body—it may help ease chronic pain as well.

The study, led by Dr. Alex J. Zautra at the Department of Psychology of Arizona State University, analyzed the pain responses of 52 similarly aged women. About half the group, 27 women, suffered from chronic fibromyalgia, the remaining 25 were in good health.

Both groups of women were exposed to low and moderate levels of pain, delivered by pulses from a heat probe on their palm. During the first half of each set of pulses, the women breathed at a normal rate. During the second half, the women used slower, yoga style breathing: approximately half their normal respiration speed.

The results indicated that the slow, yogic breathing reduced the experience of pain intensity and unpleasantness in both groups of women. Furthermore, as the degree of pain increased, the women experienced increasingly significant reductions by using the diaphragmatic, yogic breathing.

Although the effects of slow breathing were most consistent among women in the healthy group, the findings do suggest that yogic breathing, or pranayama techniques could offer a complimentary approach to help relieve the chronic pain of fibromyalgia or other common discomforts, such as back pain.

Most importantly, the study reveals that how we breathe does alter our perceptions of and responses to pain. Fibromyalgia is unique in that, while it comes with aches and pains throughout the body–along with other symptoms such as fatigue, insomnia and depression–its cause is unknown. Doctors have been unable to pinpoint any physical signs, such as inflammation, that might cause the pain. Consequently, researchers conjecture that fibromyalgia may be due to how the brain processes pain signals—something this study shows yogic breathing and pranayama may be able to help.

According to the study’s lead researcher, Zaruta, slow, diaphragmatic breathing may combat pain through establishing a better balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system, or “fight-or-flight” response, is triggered by stress and causes an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and sweating. The parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, known as the “resting-and-digesting” response, allows the body to rejuvenate and heal itself.

Yogic breathing techniques and pranayama can calm and integrate these two complimentary systems, and in this way may be able to help people deal with all types of chronic pain, from fibromyalgia to osteoarthritis and lower back pain.

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