Chronic low back and neck pain can be debilitating for so many who suffer with these conditions. In fact, my entire professional career has been centered around treating the worst of the worst.
I don’t get your garden variety neck and low back pain patients. The most common scenario I see in my clinic are patients who have been in pain for years. Most have tried injections, physical therapy, spinal manipulation, stem cell injections, steroid injections, etc…
Over half of my patients come to me after having failed neck or low back surgery. I know the neck and back pain world very well. I’ve heard thousands of sad stories of lost quality of life, lost relationships, lost time with family and loved ones.
I”m not writing this article to make severe neck and back pain seem trivial or minimal because it’s not. I don’t want anyone to think that I believe that deep breathing is going to get rid of neck or low back pain.
It’s not. When there is a herniated disc, a bulging disc, spinal stenosis or sciatica, it is being caused by a structural problem.
The only way to get true relief from a structural problem is to do something about the problem. Deep breathing isn’t going to get rid of a structural problem but at least it can help calm the nervous system and that is what this article is about.
How is the Nervous System Affected by Deep Breathing?
When it comes to calming the nervous system, deep breathing can help people get some form of relief and help with management and coping with the pain. There are multiple reasons for this and this article won’t discuss them all. Instead, I will focus on some of the common sense reasons that just make sense.
Breathing brings oxygen to tissues throughout the body. All tissues in the body need oxygen and if any tissue is deprived of oxygen, it is called ischemia. Ischemia can lead to cell death and tissue destruction.
It depends on which tissues become oxygen deprived as to which tissues become ischemic and undergo cell death. An example would be a transient ischemic attack. Most people have heard of a transient ischemic attack and may not realize it.
Is a Transient Ischemic Attack Dangerous?
The abbreviation for transient ischemic attack is a “TIA” A TIA is also called a mini stroke and is caused by a blockage of blood flow to a part of the brain which makes that part of the brain temporarily oxygen deprived.
The risk factors for a TIA are the same as for “real” strokes and heart attacks: Smoking, high cholesterol, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and high blood pressure are some of the most common risk factors that could cause a mini-stroke.
A mini-stroke should be taken very seriously because a TIA could be the warning shot of bad things to come if things are allowed to continue along the same path. The prognosis of a TIA is not good because it causes an increased risk of a stroke.
This article is about pain reduction through deep breathing and I guess I got a little side tracked with the TIA “mini-stroke” information but it is a prime example of why proper oxygenation of all tissues in the body is so important.
Tissues can die if they don’t get enough oxygen. Poor oxygen supply to muscles, joints, bones, organs, nerves, and the brain can cause those tissues to become inflamed. Inflammation can cause pain in many cases and also leads to disease of tissues when present over a prolonged period of time.
How can Deep Breathing Reduce Pain?
Deep breathing has a stimulating effect on the Parasympathetic Autonomic Nervous System (PANS). The PANS is the rest and digest side of the nervous system. The PANS is the calm side of the nervous system. The PANS is for relaxation and digestion.
Anyone who has been in chronic pain (or even acute pain) will have a ramped up Sympathetic Autonomic Nervous System (SANS) and be in a fight or flight state instead of a rest and digest. A fight or flight state tends to make people short of breath or even hold their breath sometimes.
Taking short or shallow breaths because of chronic pain can create hypoxia throughout the body. Additionally, many of the waste products produced by the human body are excreted through breathing out (exhalation).
The SANS and PANS are always at war. They combat each other every minute of every day through our entire lives. People who are in pain will see SANS activation which can further drive the natural pain pathways in their body.
How does Deep Breathing Relate to Low Back or Neck Pain?
Deep breathing can help reduce or manage pain by stimulating the PANS. It can take some real effort and focus for some but is well worth the time spent in getting into a more restful state and getting some good oxygen to the brain.
Interestingly, the part of the brain that needs oxygen the most is called the cerebellum. The cerebellum controls spinal and postural musculature in the neck and back.
Therefore, it is really important to get fuel to the part of the brain that sends the majority of the signals to the muscles that surround your spine.
Like I said earlier, if you have a structural problem in your neck or back, it needs to be addressed. Hopefully, through natural treatments like what I do with my patients.
It isn’t a far stretch to consider that an invasive neck or low back surgery could cause chronic activation of the SANS and put someone in a chronic state of fight or flight. It actually makes perfect sense from a biomechanical standpoint.
Why can Neck or Back Surgery cause more Pain?
Cells contain potassium and other components. When a cell gets damaged, it dies. When a cell dies, it breaks open and releases its contents into the bloodstream and also the tissues around it.
Potassium is neuro-excitetory which means that it can cause excitement to a nerve. Therefore, inflamed cells that die can release potassium around free nerve endings which can cause the nerve to send pain signals through the nerves, spinal cord, and to the brain leading to increased pain perception.
Cell damage also brings in an immune response that carries blood products such as platelets. Platelets can interact with enzymes released out of the cells and form serotonin.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is mostly made in the digestive tract. That is another reason why it is important to maintain a healthy digestive tract. Serotonin can also fire nerve pain pathways.
Bradykinin is made when enzymes interact with plasma and can excite nerve pain pathways. At the same time, nerves can release substance P on the nerve endings and cause a pain response by stimulating the immune system and a histamine response.
If this process isn’t interrupted, then it becomes a situation like a dog chasing its tail. That is why I believe that so many neck and back surgeries don’t work.
Invasive procedures are what they are: invasive. When the surface of the skin is broken, the inflammatory pathways get kicked into overdrive and that process alone can initiate chronic pain.
If you can’t come see me right now so that I can build a strategy to help you have less pain and inflammation, then at least start breathing deeply on a daily basis so that you can bring fuel to your nervous system.
Fuel will give the nerves what they need so there is at least a fighting chance. At the same time, you can breathe out or exhale a substantial amount of pro-inflammatory toxins from your body that could most certainly perpetuate a state of chronic pain.
Health is Happiness,
Dr. Keith Currie