Breathing a bit easier

“I can’t breathe!! My neck is broken. This is going to be a terrible life. Just let me go.” I sobbed as I lay unable to move from the neck down.  

My high school sweetheart and husband of 19 years implored. “I love you from the neck-up. Keep breathing.” 

He had seen my rollover accident from his rear-view mirror. He didn’t expect to find anything breathing after the violence he had witnessed. He sat with me in the ambulance urging me to take another breath all the way to the emergency room in Butte, Montana. I was fortunate the hospital had a skilled neurosurgeon on duty to remove the shards of bone threatening to completely sever my spinal cord. 

After surgery and rehab, I was doing well in my life. My spinal cord injury was incomplete. I had many physical difficulties, but I was able to learn to walk and was functioning quite well. 

2 years later a new problem develops: burning nerve pain. I’m meeting with a pain-management psychologist.

“It hurts to breathe!! I can’t see what this is going to do!” I was frustrated and sick of the neck-down burning central nerve pain. Did she think this was all in my head? Did she think I could just breathe from the diaphragm and it would all go away? What a bunch of hog wash!

“Just try it a few times a day for 6 months and see what happens,” she suggested. 

Once my anger subsided, I thought it over. I decided it couldn’t hurt. The 6 months would go by whether I did it or not, so I might as well give it a try. The first few weeks were not helpful, in fact I felt more pain, as both lungs hurt worse with deep breathing.

“How are things going with your breathing exercises?” She had called to check in on me.

“Not well!” I complained. “My lungs hurt when I breathe deeply and I don’t understand what this is supposed to do.” 

She explained what diaphragmatic breathing does for chronic pain.  

“People with chronic pain are often chest breathers.  Because there is fear of more pain, you take small, shallow breaths.  This only makes things worse, however, as chest breathing increases muscle tension—thus increasing the pain.”

She then explained what deep breathing could do to specifically help my pain. She described how it would:

  • Help to relax my tense muscles. 

  • Be a great distraction tool.  Because the brain can only concentrate on one thing at a time, a focus on breathing takes the mind away from the stress and pain.  

  • Reduce physical symptoms of anxiety and stress—especially through slow, deep breathing.

  • Improve circulation, which improves clear thinking and relaxes body tissues.

All these reactions ease tension and, thus, reduce pain.   

She also told me if the breathing hurt, I needed to back off the deep breathing and just start a bit shallow and work up to it. 

I decided to give it an honest go. I started shallow but deliberately focusing on breathing from the diaphragm several times per day. After several months I realized I was able to reduce my pain with a few breaths from my diaphragm.  Wow! I now have a super available tool I can use anywhere, anytime!  


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How to Do Diaphragmatic Breathing:  To begin, sit with your feet flat on the floor or lie on your back.  Place one hand on your high chest and the other over your rib area (above the abdomen). As you breathe deeply, your upper chest should be still.  You will feel your entire torso (rib cage and abdomen) expand as you fully inflate the lungs. Now exhale completely, pushing the air out with the abdominal muscles.  As you exhale—relax your face, shoulders, neck, chest, back and anything else that is tense. 

This will become easier with practice, until you automatically engage the diaphragm—not just while sitting or lying down.  Try deep breathing several times per hour until it becomes a natural part of your life. Most people see improvements right away and don’t need 6 months. You will begin to feel less stress and tension.  You now have a secret weapon to use against pain flares, too—anywhere, anytime you need it!  

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