Respiratory hypoalgesia? Breath-holding, but not respiratory phase modulates nociceptive flexion reflex and pain intensity

Hassan Jafari*, Karlien Van de Broek, Leon Plaghki, Johan W. S. Vlaeyen, Omer Van den Bergh, Ilse Van Diest*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Several observations suggest that respiratory phase (inhalation vs. exhalation) and post-inspiratory breath-holds could modulate pain and the nociceptive reflex. This experiment aimed to investigate the role of both mechanisms. Thirty-two healthy participants received supra-threshold electrocutaneous stimulations to elicit both the Nociceptive Flexion Reflex (NFR) and pain, either during spontaneous inhalations or exhalations, or during three types of instructed breath-holds: following exhalation, at mid-inhalation and at full-capacity inhalation. Whether the electrocutaneous stimulus was applied during inhalation or exhalation did not affect the NFR or pain. Self-reported pain was reduced and the NFR was increased during breath-holding compared to spontaneous breathing. Whereas the type of breath-hold did not impact on self-reported pain, breath-holds at full capacity inhalation and following exhalation were associated with a lower NFR amplitude compared to breath holds at mid-inhalation. The present findings confirm that breath-holding can modulate pain (sensitivity) and suggest that both attentional distraction and changes in vagal activity may underlie the observed effects.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)50-58
JournalInternational Journal of Psychophysiology
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2016


  • Pain
  • Nociceptive flexion reflex
  • Respiration
  • Breathing
  • Breath-hold
  • Hypoalgesia

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