Slow Breathing May Ease Arthritis Pain

If you suffer from arthritis, you are probably all too familiar with the pain it produces in the joints. You may even have resigned yourself to living with it for the rest of your life, especially if over-the-counter or prescription painkillers haven't done the trick. But a remedy for your discomfort may lie in something you do multiple times every minute without even thinking about it—your breathing.

The trick is to breathe in and out very slowly, with great awareness of what you're doing. This yoga-style breathing, essentially a form of meditation, recently has been shown to reduce pain in people who suffer from chronic pain. A study team at Arizona State University and the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix recruited 52 women-27 who had chronic pain from fibromyalgia (a condition in which joints are painful, much like arthritis) and 25 who were healthy. For this study, the researchers delivered small pulses of moderate heat to the women's palms while they breathed normally. Then they delivered the painful heat bursts while having the women control their breathing so it matched the pace of a slowly moving ellipse on a screen in front of them. In both instances the women were asked to report how bad the pain was when they experienced their heat blasts and how it affected their emotional state.

What the researchers found was that slow, controlled breathing enabled the women to rate their pain as less severe than when they were breathing normally and to feel less negative emotion, especially in the women who were healthy to begin with. The scientists think that slow breathing counteracts the activity that starts up in the brain when it registers pain. It "dampens" the anxiety and nervous tension that the pain causes. It also allows the mind to open up to feelings other than anxiety over the pain, restoring balance and calm.

Unfortunately, not all of the women with fibromyalgia found the meditative breathing helpful. Women who often experienced positive emotions in their lives were the most helped by the slow breathing. The researchers suggest that while slow breathing certainly has a place in controlling any kind of chronic pain, since pain is so emotionally stressful it may be helpful to get some psychological help. Physical therapy also may be an important treatment tool.


Arizona State University,