Can slow deep breathing reduce pain? An experimental study exploring mechanisms

Hassan Jafari*, Ali Gholamrezaei, Mathijs Franssen, Lukas Van Oudenhove, Qasim Aziz, Omer Van den Bergh, Johan W.S. Vlaeyen, Ilse Van Diest

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Slow deep breathing (SDB) is commonly employed in the management of pain, but the underlying mechanisms remain equivocal. This study sought to investigate effects of instructed breathing patterns on experimental heat pain and to explore possible mechanisms of action. In a within-subject experimental design, healthy volunteers (n = 48) performed four breathing patterns: 1) unpaced breathing (UB), 2) paced breathing at the participant's spontaneous breathing frequency (PB), 3) SDB at six breaths per minute with a high inspiration/expiration ratio (SDB-H), and 4) SDB at six breaths per minute with a low inspiration/expiration ratio (SDB-L). During presentation of each breathing pattern, participants received painful heat stimuli of three different temperatures and rated each stimulus on pain intensity. Respiration, heart rate, and blood pressure were recorded. Compared to UB, participants reported less intense pain during each of the three instructed breathing patterns. Among the instructed breathing patterns, pain did not differ between PB and SDB-H, and SDB-L attenuated pain more than the PB and SDB-H patterns. The latter effect was paralleled by greater blood pressure variability and baroreflex effectiveness index during SDB-L. Cardiovascular changes did not mediate the observed effects of breathing patterns on pain. Perspective: SDB is more efficacious to attenuate pain when breathing is paced at a slow rhythm with an expiration that is long relative to inspiration, but the underlying mechanisms remain to be elucidated.

Original languageEnglish
JournalThe Journal of Pain
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 21 Jan 2020

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