The simple practice of slow breathing may help people deal with the physical and emotional reactions to moderate pain, a small study suggests.
Researchers say the findings, published in the journal Pain, offer support for the idea that yoga-style breathing exercises and meditation can help ease chronic pain.
The study gauged pain responses among 27 women with the chronic pain condition fibromyalgia and 25 healthy women the same age.
Researchers found that when they had the women perform slow breathing, it dampened their reactions to a moderately painful stimulus — brief pulses of heat from a probe placed on the palm. Overall, the women rated the pain intensity as lower and reported less emotional discomfort when they slowed their normal breathing rate down by half.
The benefit was greater and more consistent among the healthy study participants than those with fibromyalgia.
However, the findings suggest that breathing techniques could offer an additional way to deal with fibromyalgia or other types of chronic pain, according to lead researcher Dr. Alex J. Zautra, a psychology professor at Arizona State University in Tempe.
"What's really valuable is that we were able to put this yoga-like, meditation approach under the microscope," he told Reuters Health in an interview.
The study did not assess any formal yoga or meditation technique, but did look at the effects of becoming more aware of your breathing, which is at the foundation of those practices. The findings, according to Zautra, appear to be the first to show that "how we breathe" does alter perceptions of and responses to pain.
He and his colleagues are currently studying the effects of mindfulness meditation as part of fibromyalgia treatment.
Fibromyalgia is a syndrome marked by widespread aches and pains — on both sides of the body and above and below the waist — along with other symptoms such as fatigue, sleep problems and depression. Its cause is unclear — there are no physical signs, such as inflammation — but researchers believe that fibromyalgia involves problems in how the brain processes pain signals.
"It is not 'all in your head,'" Zautra noted, "but it may be in your brain."
Slow breathing, he explained, may help by bringing a better balance to the activities of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
The sympathetic nervous system activates what is often dubbed the "fight-or-flight" response during times of stress — increasing heart rate, blood pressure and perspiration, for example. If the sympathetic nervous system is seen as an accelerator, then the parasympathetic nervous system is akin to a brake.
Learning breathing techniques might be particularly useful for painful conditions like fibromyalgia, but Zautra said there is also potential for helping people deal with other types of chronic pain, like osteoarthritis and lower back pain.
People are "remarkably resilient" in their capacity to recover from pain, Zautra explained. "Sometimes they just need a little help."