Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a life without pain. In case of tissue damage or illness, pain is even useful because it ensures that you spare or treat the painful spot to prevent worse things from happening. Generally, in time the pain just disappears. But it is also possible that pain becomes chronic, and that what causes the pain remains unclear.
Pain is complex
Pain is a complicated phenomenon, and it is not always well understood. There may be tissue damage or disease, but that is not necessarily to feel pain. Furthermore, someone may feel pain quickly (having a lower pain threshold), or someone may not tolerate pain very well (having a lower pain tolerance). The environment too plays a role in how we experience and deal with pain.
The entire nervous system is involved when you experience pain. First of all, pain is a sensory sensation, as is feeling warmth or cold, hearing sounds and seeing images. You can also locate the pain in the body. Pain is also an emotional experience. Some people experience their pain ‘cool’ and neutral, and others express it with intense emotions. Thoughts about the pain also play a role. They can work both positively (“It will be gone soon”) and negatively (“If I move, it causes even more damage”).
Nowadays we know that pain is always physical and psychological. Body and mind are connected via the – central and peripheral parts of the – nervous system that makes us experience pain. We have multiple ‘pain pathways’ that conduct the pain stimuli to the brain. Different parts of the brain are activated when we perceive pain.
Disrupted stress mechanisms
In threatening situations, all stress mechanisms (which incite the body to fight or flee) are mobilized in order to survive. This happens not only when the situation is immediately dangerous to our lives, but also when we feel threatened by modern stressors such as high workload, threat of dismissal, feeling unaccepted, noise nuisance, etc. Our stress mechanisms can often only partially copy with these types of stressors.
Things go wrong when stress does not lead to the proper physical response. This is common. In a stressful situation, muscle tension increases but you can’t run away (being stuck in traffic jams); the heart rate increases but there is no intensive physical movement (hearing bad news); breathing increases (hyperventilating) but the body cannot process that volume of air. The problem is that psychological stress and physical stress become disconnected, often for longer periods of time, which disrupts several processes in the body. This increases the risk of pain symptoms.
Emotions, breathing and pain
Emotions have a strong influence on breathing. Breathing is regulated by the ‘respiratory center ’ in the brainstem. This breathing center directs the respiratory muscles (such as the diaphragm) to breathe lighter or heavier, slower or faster. The breathing center is also close to the brain region that regulates emotions which feeling pain. That is why, for example, a sudden severe pain makes you hold your breath and that you breathe a sigh of relief when the pain is over.
This strong interaction between emotions and breathing may get you caught in a vicious circle. In many people with unexplained chronic pain, anxiety or stress arises. This turns their breathing into hyperventilating after which feelings of pain increase. For example, hyperventilation is known to copy the pain pattern of angina pectoris (chest pain). Research has shown that most pain attacks are caused by stress and not because the heart muscle is not getting enough oxygen.
Hyperventilation strengthens pain
Both psychological stress and physical exertion activate the respiratory center and makes breathing heavier. In this way, the body gets ready for action. The heavier breathing means that more carbon dioxide (CO2) is blown out. If there is indeed a physical reaction (flights, attack, sports performance) then the muscles produce extra CO2 and the right balance is restored. But when there is no physical action a problem arises: the loss of carbon dioxide disrupts both the acidity of the blood (a phenomenon called ‘respiratory alkalosis’) and the electrolyte balance (sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, etc.).
Hyperventilation has mental and physiological effects. Alkalosis increases the irritability of the nervous system , which facilitates or stimulates the conduction of pain stimuli. The disturbed electrolyte balance worsens the water balance in the cells and the disposal of waste products and causes the muscles to contract. Known complaints of people who breathe too heavily are tense muscles, cramps, trembling, tingling and pain.
To summarize the vicious circle one may get caught in: Pain ⇒ anxiety/tension ⇒ hyperventilation ⇒ alkalosis (disturbed acidity and electrolyte balance) ⇒ greater irritability of peripheral sensory nerves and/or central neurons ⇒ pain ⇒ and so on.
Buteyko in chronic pain
Treating chronic pain is complex. When you are struggling with chronic pain, chances are that your breathing is disordered. You usually breathe heavier than necessary, often through the mouth, with a lot of sighs, and in the upper chest. If you notice that for yourself, then the Buteyko method will help you break the vicious circle.
With the Buteyko method you train the breathing center (in the brain) to a more more healthy breathing pattern. Breathing gradually becomes gradually slower and lighter. In addition, you are going to switch to nasal breathting, and you have to sigh less and less until it disappears.
With daily exercises in breathing lighter your ‘Control pause’ will increase. This is the time you are holding your breath – without willpower – between an exhalation and the following inhalation. It indicates how (over)sensitive the body reacts to CO2. By doing exercises in reduced breathing, this (over)sensitivity slowly decreases. The concentration of CO2 in the body will increase, and the acidity of the blood and the electrolyte balance restore. Furthermore, the central and peripheral nerve tissue becomes less irritable and sensations of pain diminish.
You can learn the Buteyko method in an individual course, with meetings face-to-face or online (by video calling), or with a combination of the two. At our office in Hoofddorp, the sessions will take place in compliance with all Corona measures.
How is your breathing now?
Buteyko has developed a simple test: measuring the Control Pause. This test is explained here.
Do you suffer from chronic pain?
Please feel free to contact us and request a free consultation. Or read more about out the content of the Buteyko course and how to sign up.