The effect of deep and slow breathing on pain perception, autonomic activity, and mood processing--an experimental study

Pain Med. 2012 Feb;13(2):215-28. doi: 10.1111/j.1526-4637.2011.01243.x. Epub 2011 Sep 21.


Objective: Deep and slow breathing (DSB) techniques, as a component of various relaxation techniques, have been reported as complementary approaches in the treatment of chronic pain syndromes, but the relevance of relaxation for alleviating pain during a breathing intervention was not evaluated so far.

Methods: In order to disentangle the effects of relaxation and respiration, we investigated two different DSB techniques at the same respiration rates and depths on pain perception, autonomic activity, and mood in 16 healthy subjects. In the attentive DSB intervention, subjects were asked to breathe guided by a respiratory feedback task requiring a high degree of concentration and constant attention. In the relaxing DSB intervention, the subjects relaxed during the breathing training. The skin conductance levels, indicating sympathetic tone, were measured during the breathing maneuvers. Thermal detection and pain thresholds for cold and hot stimuli and profile of mood states were examined before and after the breathing sessions.

Results: The mean detection and pain thresholds showed a significant increase resulting from the relaxing DSB, whereas no significant changes of these thresholds were found associated with the attentive DSB. The mean skin conductance levels indicating sympathetic activity decreased significantly during the relaxing DSB intervention but not during the attentive DSB. Both breathing interventions showed similar reductions in negative feelings (tension, anger, and depression).

Conclusion: Our results suggest that the way of breathing decisively influences autonomic and pain processing, thereby identifying DSB in concert with relaxation as the essential feature in the modulation of sympathetic arousal and pain perception.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Anxiety / etiology
  • Anxiety / prevention & control
  • Anxiety / therapy
  • Breathing Exercises*
  • Chronic Pain / complications
  • Chronic Pain / physiopathology
  • Chronic Pain / psychology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mood Disorders / etiology
  • Mood Disorders / prevention & control
  • Mood Disorders / therapy*
  • Pain / complications
  • Pain / physiopathology
  • Pain / psychology*
  • Pain Threshold / physiology*
  • Relaxation Therapy / methods
  • Relaxation Therapy / psychology*
  • Young Adult