Raise a Hand if You’re in Pain:
How many of you have been feeling an increased level of pain creeping up over the past 3-4 weeks? How many of you feel tightness in your chest, and have been experiencing difficulty breathing and getting a full lung’s worth of oxygen into your body? Does it feel like your airways are working against you and constricting as you are trying to get oxygen into your lungs? Do you feel like you need to try harder and use your upper chest and neck muscles in order to merely breathe?
What Is Happening in the World?
Well, you are not alone, that much is for sure! Over the past few weeks, the entire world has been essentially frozen in a state of shock. Never did we actually think that something like the COVID-19 pandemic would be sweeping our nation, overwhelming our healthcare systems, leading to healthcare workers being sent into battle with inadequate supplies to keep themselves safe. We would never imagine sending our military into war without adequate ammo and armor, and yet, here we sit watching a war unfold upon our hospitals, where our own brothers and sisters are fighting for their lives while helping others to do the same. Is it any wonder then, that we as a human collective have been stuck in this widespread state of wonder, confusion, grief, and shock?
How Is This Affecting Us?
Although we are all going through this difficult and strange time together as a human whole, we are in fact very much isolated in our quarantines and lockdowns at the same time. Those who are lucky enough to live with loving family members and/or roommates may still have the luxury of safe human contact; however, what about those who are not as lucky, or even those who do not have a safe haven to call a home?
We are all stuck in a state of panic whether we realize it or not, and although the panic may not feel constant or imminent, it is still there at an underlying level. This is because even though we know that sheltering in place is going to keep us relatively safe from the loss of life or limb, what we don’t know is how long it will last, or what short-term / long-term / potentially permanent changes we are going to have to make to our lives just yet. This is all so new that we are mostly left in the dark, and when we do not have the tools to make informed decisions about how to conduct our lives, we feel as though we have lost control, and we as human beings do not tend to function well when we lose our sense of control.
Why Does Breathing Matter?
Did you know that when you use your accessory muscles of respiration, as opposed to the muscle you are supposed to be using when you breathe (i.e. your respiratory diaphragm), that you are essentially working out all of the tiny muscles in your neck, which leads to…you guessed it, neck pain and tension, which can work its way up into your jaw and head, and even down into your back and hips!
This can often make it feel as though there is a constant pressure on your chest and throat, which might almost feel like a vice is tightening around your neck and head. When this happens, you are no longer able to oxygenate your blood as effectively as you would if you in fact used your respiratory diaphragm to recruit more of your lung capacity to breathe. Therefore, your muscles and fascia are not receiving the nutrient and oxygen rich blood they so badly need, while the acidic CO2-filled blood lingers in your tissues, worsening your pain.
[Side Note: Might the difficulty that we are experiencing with breathing have anything to do with all of the individuals currently being affected by this respiratory virus around the world, and the fact that they are all struggling so terribly to breathe?? Perhaps...?]
How Can I Breathe Effectively?
When you watch a baby breathing, particularly when they are asleep, you will see that only their belly rises and falls with each inhale and exhale, and that they are breathing only through their nose. However, oftentimes, when we observe ourselves breathing, we are not moving our bellies at all. If you place one hand on your chest and one hand on your abdomen, and you practice doing a round of breathing exercises, and you notice that your top hand moves more than your bottom hand, then you’re doing it wrong.
What you want to envision is that your respiratory diaphragm is moving downward and outward with each inhalation, and moving upward and inward with every exhalation, while your upper chest remains perfectly still.
You also want to inhale and exhale through your nose. As much as you are going to want to exhale through pursed lips, performing your exhale with your mouth closed and only through your nose will actually help you to ever-so-slightly lengthen your exhale so as to slow your heart rate down, stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system, and reconnect you to your slow diaphragmatic breathing.
What Else Can I Do to Manage My Pain?
- Human Touch Reduces Pain: Be kind to yourself and to others, including your family members. Remember that we may not always be in the headspace of being physically in contact with our spouses / partners, children, or pets. However, just remember that the mere act of tender loving touch of another being (human or animal) helps our bodies to release chemicals that lower our pain response.(1)(2)(3)
- Gently Moving and Stretching of Your Myofascia: Whether you follow a YouTube video, or you get on the floor and just do what feels good, the act of stretching and moving your muscles and the fascial connective tissue helps to keep your circulation moving more effectively. If you have never heard of Miranda Esmonde-White’s Classical Stretch technique, now would be the perfect time to explore some of her videos. What I love about her technique is that it is not about “exercising” in our modern-day definition of the word, but the gentle flow of movements of the body, which effortlessly works to lengthen your myofascia, with the end result being significantly less pain.
- Un-Restrict Your Diaphragm: Take the pressure and strain off of your abdomen and your respiratory diaphragm. Have you ever wondered why it feels so good to change out of your work clothes and into your home clothes at the end of a long day? It’s because the pressure from all of the bras and pants and belts makes it impossible for your lower rib cage, diaphragm, and most importantly your belly to actually MOVE! So, just take it all off and breathe!
- Take Mini-Breaks: We all know what working at a desk feels like; however, now that we have to work remotely, we are likely making do with whatever we have available that our spouses / partners / others in the home are not using, and may find ourselves hunched over in bed or even on the floor. Try setting a 20-minute timer on your phone that reminds you to stop what you are doing, stand up, get a drink of water, and to do a few basic and easy stretches. One of my favorites is a doorway stretch to open up your chest, or just gently bending over while letting your arms and head hang like a rag doll (please always keep your knees slightly bent when doing this), or any other movement that feels good to you.
- Reduce Inflammation: Work to reduce your overall level of inflammation by eating an anti-inflammatory / whole foods plant-based diet; however, try to incorporate more turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, fish / fish oil into your day, as well as cutting out excessive alcohol, sugar, and processed food intake. That being said, please don't guilt yourself for indulging in what feeds your soul either.
- Self-Care: Do what makes you happy. Some of us might find ourselves struggling to find the safe space, perhaps even away from our own loved ones, to just do what we need to feel some semblance of normal. So, wait until the kids are asleep and take a warm Epsom salt bath, or go for a car ride with the windows down and turn up your favorite jams. Just find what speaks to your soul, and make some time to fit it in!
- Let It Go! Spend some time listening to your body and leaning into your pain. See if you can palpably feel what parts of your pain are actually yours, and what parts of your pain might in fact be some of the collective pain and weight of the world pressing down upon your shoulders and neck…and see if you can just breathe that out…and let it go.
- In-Office Pain Therapy: If you still find yourself struggling with pain, even after you’ve tried some of the tips above, please consider reaching out for a complimentary phone call so that we can discuss how to safely assist you with managing your pain.