THE BLOG
09/25/2013 05:20 pm ET Updated Nov 25, 2013

Take Two Breaths and Call Me in the Morning: An Unexpected Source of Relief From Arthritis Pain

It always comes as a surprise to my patients when I prescribe a painkiller for their arthritis joint pain that doesn't require a written prescription and not even a trip to the pharmacy.

I tell them to breathe.

While it's become fashionable to tell friends and colleagues "breathe!" -- and there are equally fashionable desk and office accessories reminding the same -- there's some serious science behind the reason that breathing correctly can reduce pain.

Get out of the shallow end of the pool

If you've listened to any kind of meditation audio, you'll know that being "mindful" of your breathing is a key component to moving into a meditative state. Most of us don't think about our breathing, until we have a problem: Shortness of breath can signal a number of serious medical conditions, from a panic attack to a heart attack. Our breath is the very essence of aliveness.

Most of the time, we take short, shallow "rabbit" breaths into the upper part of the lungs. This kind of breathing activates the sympathetic stress receptors and is designed to help us function in an emergency. Originally, of course, it was an attack by the fabled saber-tooth tiger, but nowadays, it can be a virus alert on our computer, a cyclist who almost hits us as we step off a curb, a 2 a.m. phone call when a daughter hasn't come home yet.

But another activator of the stress receptors is chronic pain in your knee, your toe, your hand, your back. Chronic pain might just be the modern day version of that saber-tooth monster our ancestors were always (supposedly) running away from.

When we take shallow breaths and activate those stress receptors, we are triggering an increase in heart rate, which constricts the blood vessels so that circulation become more efficient -- and heightens our blood pressure. This is the classic "fight or flight" syndrome, an evolutionary survival mechanism designed to get us through a crisis, and it makes perfect sense when some crazed animal, phony hacker or distracted bicycle rider is threatening your life, or at least your peace of mind.

It doesn't make sense when your pain level is ratcheted up. In fact, it just makes your life worse.

In "fight or flight," the body releases stress-fighting hormones and produces harmful free radicals, hiking the levels of insulin and cholesterol. And because the human body is an amazing machine, a sense of dire emergency will even stop the burning of fat for fuel -- conserving it for later, in case we've run so far away from whatever threat is facing us that we've run clear out of range of food.

(Of course, this is unlikely in a place like New York City, where most of my patients reside; every block and corner offers some kind of comestible -- you'd have to run pretty far to get out of range of a restaurant, deli or hot pretzel stand.)

Fight or flight response is extremely helpful -- life-saving -- in a momentary crisis when quick, intensive action is needed. But if this behavior persists over a long period, it is ultimately destructive and life-shortening rather than life-preserving. And, if you suffer from chronic pain, you know too well what lengthy battle that can be.

Go deep

How you breathe can determine whether your body stores or burns fat. When you take shallow breaths, you don't stand a chance of burning fat and losing weight. However, if you breathe deeply, you are activating the relaxation response (named by Dr. Herbert Benson). Not only will you feel more relaxed, but your body will also believe that it's OK to start burning that fat again.

What does this have to do with reducing pain? Your goal in managing your arthritis pain is to keep it under control. If you focus on and regulate your breathing, it shifts the mind's attention away from your pain and your body's natural response to pain!

Proper breathing in a slow, controlled rhythm is the fastest pain reliever you can use. Your goal is to relax -- the opposite of what the pain response is. It is normal to tense up when in pain. By activating the relaxation response you are, in fact, reducing your pain.

Here's how to do some deep breathing for instant relief (these are demonstrated in my DVD, "Arthritis Rx," and in the book of the same title):

Slow your breathing down as much as possible and take full, deep breaths. Try to inhale deeply through your nose and hold your breath in your lungs for a count of three.

Exhale fully by contracting your stomach slightly, then inhale until you feel your stomach expanding somewhat. Continue breathing this way for at least two to three minutes.

The pay-off

By deep breathing, you are delivering extra oxygen to your overstressed muscles, which allows them to relax. And you are also calming your mind and nervous system -- which also will relieve your pain.

Using the deep breathing described here, you will also reduce the chronic back caused by arthritis or disk issues.

Never forget that your MIND is one of your most powerful allies in managing pain and restoring your body to full function. Practice deep breathing and unleash the potency of your mind in overcoming chronic pain.

For more by Dr. Vijay Vad, click here.

For more on personal health, click here.

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