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Dealing with pain

Posted by Julie on 11/21/04 at 05:53 (164467)

When Dorothy wrote a few days ago about her severe pain, I made a brief post to her about using the breath to help manage pain. Since then I have been thinking about this, and today I found the draft of a post I wrote two years ago which went into more detail, and I thought it might be useful if I copied it here. I've revised it somewhat in order to make it more useful, including giving details for a relaxation technique that I and my students over many years have found especially effective.

Here is the post, which I made in November 2002. It's a summary of some of the most important things I have been teaching for the last 17 years. If you read it (it's long!) and think it might be helpful to you, I suggest you print it out and keep it: you know how quickly posts vanish into oblivion.

***

Pain always causes muscular tension and stress as we brace ourselves against it, and this 'bracing' usually intensifies the pain. There is a great deal we can do to undo the muscular tension and stress that make our pain worse. Learning and regularly practising relaxation techniques is the key, and most people who are in pain are sufficiently motivated to do this. It can be done in a class which is specifically for relaxation, or in a yoga class that emphasises relaxation rather than dynamic strong physical postures (not all do, by any means). Biofeedback and autogenic training are two techniques that have their roots in yoga, and both are effective. Or you could use a relaxation tape. I've made one, and would be glad to tell you about it if you wish.

Breathing is the key, especially breathing out. We think that inhalation is the important bit of the breath cycle, but exhalation is equally important, if not more so. This is partly because full exhalation, which expels toxins and impurities, leads naturally to fuller inhalation, which brings in more oxygen. But it's also because exhalation is the part of the breath cycle that calms the sympathetic nervous system. Full, relaxed exhalation helps us to let go, both physically and mentally.

Most people curtail the length of their exhalation at least some of the time. If we're under tension, if we're stressed, if we're in pain, we probably do this most of the time. Cutting short the exhalation leads to hurried, incomplete inhalation, and this creates a vicious cycle of rapid, shallow breathing which increases tension and intensifies pain.

Check in with your breathing often, and whenever you find that you're not breathing out fully, sigh the breath out, gently, a few times. This will help to restore a fuller, freer breath cycle. This will be temporary at first, but eventually it will become more habitual.

This is the key to releasing tension, and it's something simple that you can do all the time, whenever you think of it. You just have to think of it, and make sure you do it from time to time.

The most effective relaxation techniques use the exhalation to encourage the 'letting go' of muscular tension. One short and effective technique is a journey around the body. You bring your awareness to each part of the body as you breathe in, and let go as you breathe out. The order of the 16 body parts (it is important to keep to this order) is:

Feet
Shins
Kneecaps
Thighs
Abdomen
Solar plexus
Upper chest
Spine

Hands
Forearms
Upper arms
Throat
Back of the head
Jaw
Eyes
Scalp

This is a simple and effective technique. You can practise it in different positions: sitting in a chair; or lying on your back with your knees bent and your hands on your abdomen; or with your legs outstretched and a little apart and your palms facing the ceiling. The latter is the best. You can use it in bed to help you go off to sleep. It takes about five minutes to perform, but for a deeper relaxation you can linger at each point for two or more breaths if you wish. There are many other techniques: it's a matter of learning and using them regularly, not just as 'first aid' when the pain has become hard to bear. The body and the mind learn the habit of relaxation through regular, repeated practice, and once you have learned atechnique and made it part of your life and routine, it is there to help you whenever you need it.

Stretching is also important, to help release muscular tension and encourage fuller, more relaxed breathing. Simple breathing and stretching exercises have a profound effect on the mental and emotional state. You could try this one. Standing comfortably (or sitting upright in a straight chair if standing is painful) raise your arms forward and up as you breathe in; lower them as you breathe out. Co-ordinate the movement with the breath, and repeat 5x.

The breath, and awareness of the breath, are also the foundation of meditation practices in all the major spiritual traditions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism and Islam; and meditation techniques have been found to be very effective in dealing with pain. There has been much research into this topic, and there are many books: Ainslie Mears's Relief Without Drugs is the classic.

The common response to long-lasting pain is to reject it, to be angry at it, to wish it away. This is natural and we've all been through it. But these emotional reactions are part of what increases tension, and intensify the pain. I don't have time to go into this in the depth it needs, but the truth is that if we acknowledge the pain, open to it, accept it, and allow it in rather than try to push it away, the resulting relaxation of body and mind lessens the pain and makes it easier for us to deal with it.

Summary: Anything that increases tension will intensify pain. Anything that releases tension will lessen pain. Learning breathing, relaxation and meditation techniques will be of help. They won't do away with it, but they will lessen it physiologically, and help deal with it emotionally and mentally.

I hope this is helpful. If anyone is interested in my breathing and relaxation tape, you are welcome to email me: julie fried @ clara. co. uk (omit spaces). Many people who have used it have found it helpful. It is stocked by the Bristol Cancer Help Centre, who regard it as the best of the many relaxation tapes they use and recommend it to everyone who comes there.


takes about five minutes to perform, but for a deeper relaxation you can linger at each point for two or more breaths if you wish. There are many other techniques: it's a matter of learning and using them regularly, not just as 'first aid' when the pain has already become hard to bear. The body - and the mind - learn the habit of relaxation through regular, repeated practice, and a technique you have learned is then there to help you whenever you need it.

Simple breathing and stretching exercises have a profound effect on the mental and emotional state. You could try this one. Standing comfortably, raise your arms forward and up as you breathe in; lower them as you breathe out. Co-ordinate the movement with the breath, and repeat 5x.

The breath, and awareness of the breath, are also the foundation of meditation practices in all the major spiritual traditions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism and Islam; and meditation techniques have been found to be very effective in dealing with pain. One reason (amongst many) for this is that being aware of the breath, and watching it as it enters and leaves the body, gives us a focus on something other than our pain. There has been much research into this topic, and there are many books: Ainslie Mears's Relief Without Drugs is the classic.

The common response to pain, especially long-lasting pain, is to reject it, to be angry at it, to wish it away. This is natural, and we've all been through it, but these emotional reactions increase tension and intensify the pain. But if we acknowledge the pain, open to it, accept it as part of our experience of life right now, and allow it in rather than try to push it away, the resulting relaxation of body and mind diminishes the pain and makes it easier for us to deal with it.

SUMMARY: Anything that increases tension will intensify pain. Anything that releases tension will lessen pain. Learning breathing, relaxation and meditation techniques will be of help. They won't do away with it, but they will lessen it physiologically, and help deal with it emotionally and mentally.

***

I hope this is helpful. If anyone is interested in my breathing and relaxation tape, you are welcome to email me: julie fried @ clara. co. uk (omit spaces). Many people who have used it have found it helpful. (The Bristol Cancer Help Centre in England regard it as the best of the many relaxation tapes they stock, and recommend it to everyone who comes there.)

I would end this long post by wishing everyone a pain-free life if that were possible, but as it is not possible, for anyone, I wish you joy in your journey through pain and your efforts to deal with it.

Julie