Pain & The Importance of Breathing

Pain is strange. Pain is defined by the World Health Organization as “an unpleasant sensory or emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage”. In other words, pain is a physical and/or emotional experience output from the brain that acts as an alarm system to warn us about tissue damage, or, the potential for tissue damage. In reality, nociceptors, previously thought of as “pain nerves”, output three types of information from your body to your brain:

  • Mechanical (or movement information)
  • Thermal (ie: hot or cold)
  • Chemical (such as inflammatory changes)

Your brain will analyse each of these three messages from your body before it determines if what is occurring could be a threat to you and your survival. If your brain thinks, “Uh oh, this could be bad!” it will send pain signals back down to your body.

There exists a condition called “Congenital Insensitivity to Pain with Anhidrosis” (CIPA). Individuals born with this condition do not experience pain or temperature changes because they have faulty nociceptors. Imagine living life and never experiencing pain! At a quick glance, this seems like it would be amazing; however, this is far from the truth. People suffering from CIPA frequently injure themselves and suffer from infections that go undetected due to lack of symptoms. In some cases, ignoring injury and infection is fatal. Therefore, maybe we can think of pain as a blessing.

Pain occurs to let us know something is going on that could be a danger to our body, so that we pay attention to it. We then can assess ourselves before deciding whether or not to seek medical attention. Your brain is constantly trying to protect you. Pain is the warning that enables you to make the necessary changes in order to remove the potential danger to your body. There are behaviors we adopt when faced with threats, such as holding our breaths and tensing up. These behaviors convey to our brain that we are facing something hazardous.

Now, what exactly does all of this mean? How does this apply to my pain and me? Let’s say my shoulder hurts a bit when I lift it up to the side. If, every time I lift my arm, I hold my breath and tense my body, I am reinforcing the message that that movement is dangerous to me. My brain, in order to protect me, will send more pain signals to my shoulder. My brain will warn me to stop doing that movement because it interprets it as dangerous. However, if every time I lift my arm, I take a deep breath and let the tension leave my body, my brain will start to think, “Hey, you know what, maybe this isn’t so dangerous, maybe I can tone down the pain signals a bit here”. This does not mean we should push through pain! It means that the behaviors we adopt while in pain will impact our experience of pain. Each of us is capable of manipulating whether or not pain is ramped up or down by how we breathe and tense.

Working with your Physiotherapist, Osteopath or Chiropractor, you can determine which movements are safe to start with. They can then progress you through a series of exercises specifically tailored to you, all while guiding you through latero-costal breathing so that you can influence your brain’s impact on your pain and recovery.

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