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Using Your Breath to Reduce the Pain and Stress of Arthritis
It may seem suspiciously low-tech, but breathing for arthritis pain is a legitimate therapy — and one that’s growing in popularity.
More and more doctors are suggesting a trip to the yoga studio or meditation mat — in conjunction with lifestyle changes and medication — to help arthritis patients manage their condition more effectively. The best part? There are no side effects.
Simply breathing in and out will keep you alive, but you may not be tapping into the full potential of your breath. Some careful, deliberate and specific breathing techniques could make the difference between struggling through your arthritis symptoms and taking control of the discomfort once and for all.
What Your Breath Can Do
The act of breathing in and out may seem straightforward, but the way you choose to do so can make a big difference. For instance, taking shallow breaths into the top half of the lungs can be very energizing, while deep breathing into the diaphragm can help you focus your body and mind.
Breathing even deeper into your abdomen has been hailed as an important healing technique for centuries in yoga and meditation practices.
When you begin to breathe with more control, patience and deliberation, you can also change the way your body experiences and relays sensations — including pain.
Shift Away From Stress Receptors
Chronic pain in any part of your body can trigger your stress receptors, the mechanisms that send you into a fight or flight response. Short, shallow breaths activate those stress receptors, elevating your heart rate, stress hormones, and even your cholesterol and insulin levels. This leaves your muscles and joints tense, which worsens pain.
In contrast, deep, slow breathing activates a relaxation response, which automatically relaxes the tension in your muscles and deactivates the stress receptors. With each deep breath, you’re delivering more oxygen to your muscles, which lets those fibers release and relax.
Focusing on your breath invites you to shift your attention without forcing you to concentrate too much, and that is a great recipe for happy distraction. As you get the hang of your deep belly breathing, your thoughts will grow quieter and you’ll begin to enjoy the rhythm without critiquing your state of mind or body.
As any chronic pain patient knows, distraction can be an excellent tool for pain relief. So, when you combine the physiological benefits of deep breathing (deactivating the stress receptors) with the natural distraction that comes along, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how quickly your pain seems to dull and dissipate.
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Some Keys to Healing Breathing
Breathing exercises for pain relief don’t have to be complicated — in fact, the easier and more straightforward they are, the better.
Try to breathe slowly into your abdomen, hold your breath for a second or two, then slowly exhale, being sure you push all the air out. Repeat. If you can make this a daily habit, you’re bound to notice results in your stress levels and pain threshold.
However, experts insist that the position of your body is just as important as the breath itself. When you can take full breaths without causing discomfort anywhere in your body, you increase your endorphin levels and dilate your blood vessels for better circulation and less pain.
On the other hand, a position that puts certain spots under pressure can bring more trauma to inflamed areas and counteract all your good intentions.
Keep a few important points in mind when you begin each breathing session to make sure you reap the rewards:
You’ll want to sit in an easy, relaxed position that takes pressure off your joints and opens up your chest for easier breathing. Try sitting in a straight-back chair with a cushioned seat, or better yet, on a mat on the floor with your back against the wall. Use a blanket or towel to boost your hips if you like, and another rolled towel (or yoga block) under each knee for support if your knees don’t go to the floor easily.
Mind Your Posture
Don’t underestimate the benefits of a straight spine. You put a lot of stress on your body when you hunch over yourself, and that can worsen your pain and interfere with airflow. When you’re preparing for your deep breathing exercises, move your shoulder blades down your back and keep your head right over your hips. Relax the muscles around your ribs, face and shoulders.
Monitor Your Body
Keeping the right form is crucial for yoga, meditation, and almost every exercise out there, but it can also be one the biggest challenges. When you’re in your comfortable seated position and you’re ready to begin your exercise, keep a hand on your belly, feeling your abdomen expand on the inhalation, and move back toward your spine on each exhalation. This way, you’ll know you’re breathing deeply into your stomach rather than into your lungs, which is a more relaxing technique.
Balance Your Breath
Breathing for stress release and pain relief should be meditative and balanced: effectively, you’re creating a natural, rhythmic flow, like a physical mantra. Use your hand on your abdomen and your sense of timing to measure your inhalations and exhalations. Lengthen your breath and be sure every breath out takes as long as each breath in. You’ll naturally fit in a short pause at each end as you breathe in and out completely. You’ll find this circular breath very calming.
If you have trouble sitting comfortably, you may want to try lying on your back and relaxing your arms and legs by your sides to learn the yoga breath. Keep your hand on your stomach to feel the flow of air in and out of your body, and breathe through your nose. Once you get used to this breathing technique, try to use it all through the day, especially when you’re stretching, which will help loosen your joints and muscles safely and comfortably.