A close up of a woman doing breathing exercises.

Breathing Easier: Mindfulness Techniques to Reduce Pain

Use these simple exercises—such as body scans and deep breathing—to alleviate your pain, stress and anxiety
Author: Lisa Fields

On a scale of 1 to 10, Anthony Haugabrook’s knee pain—caused by joint damage from his severe hemophilia A with an inhibitor—usually hovers around a 7 or an 8. But after he practices mindfulness-based breathing techniques, he can reduce the pain by a few notches.

“Normally I’m able to take it down at least two numbers, so if I start at 7, I can bring it down to at least a 5 or a 4,” says Haugabrook, 37, of Macon, Georgia.

Studies show that focusing attention on the breath can lessen chronic joint pain, anxiety about the infusion process and other stressors common in people with bleeding disorders, says Christi Humphrey, LCSW, a social worker at Hemophilia of Georgia. Learning to let go of upsetting thought patterns and thinking differently about pain and stress may also help people cope. “Those thought processes actually rev up the stress cycle,” Humphrey says.

How to Practice Mindful Breathing

To help reduce strong emotions, focus on the breath as it enters the body, then describe it to yourself in your mind: Fast. Slow. Warm. Cool.

By keeping the mind focused on the breath in the present moment, you’ll worry less about whether your pain will still bother you tonight or if this episode will be as bad as last time.

Part of what makes pain difficult is the emotion tied to the sensation of discomfort, but using mindfulness-based breathing techniques can help you disassociate stressful or anxious feelings from physical pain. In this way, breathing techniques may work in conjunction with pain medication to further reduce pain sensations, Humphrey says.

“The research shows that if you do mindfulness-based stress reduction, it can reduce pain by about 50%,” Humphrey says. “Imagine if we use these techniques in conjunction with the medication how much further along we’re going to get with pain management to make the sensations more tolerable.”

Body Scan Meditation

If focusing on the breath is too difficult at first, Humphrey recommends a technique called a body scan. To do this, mentally scan from the top of your head to your feet (or the other way around) and notice each body part, making mental notes about the sensations you perceive from each area.

If your back hurts and you start your body scan with your scalp or forehead, you may perceive less pain by the time you reach your back.

“That’s the interesting thing about the body,” Humphrey says. “The body itself is constantly moving and changing. Pain is constantly moving and changing.”

Mindfulness Anywhere

In countless situations, you can incorporate mindfulness-based techniques that help reduce the emotional response to pain, stress and anxiety in your routine: Focus on sensations that you experience while walking, washing dishes or doing other activities.

“You can use literally anything—you can use a shower, because there’s so many sensations going on,” Humphrey says. “Focusing in on these moments helps to improve concentration with time.”

Practicing techniques like the body scan for several minutes a day may help improve your concentration noticeably, which can affect your perception of pain, stress and anxiety. “The research tells us these practices lead to changes in the brain that can start to happen within two weeks,” Humphrey says. “It’s about having something in your toolshed that helps you to focus on something other than the difficult emotions you’re having.”