Can Slow Deep Breathing Reduce Pain? An Experimental Study Exploring Mechanisms

J Pain. 2020 Sep-Oct;21(9-10):1018-1030. doi: 10.1016/j.jpain.2019.12.010. Epub 2020 Jan 22.


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 4 breathing patterns: 1) unpaced breathing, 2) paced breathing (PB) at the participant's spontaneous breathing frequency, 3) SDB at 6 breaths per minute with a high inspiration/expiration ratio (SDB-H), and 4) SDB at 6 breaths per minute with a low inspiration/expiration ratio (SDB-L). During presentation of each breathing pattern, participants received painful heat stimuli of 3 different temperatures and rated each stimulus on pain intensity. Respiration, heart rate, and blood pressure were recorded. Compared to unpaced breathing, participants reported less intense pain during each of the 3 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. PERSPECTIVES: 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.

Keywords: Slow deep breathing; baroreflex; blood pressure; cardiac vagal tone; paced breathing; pain.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Blood Pressure / physiology
  • Breathing Exercises / methods*
  • Breathing Exercises / psychology
  • Electrocardiography / methods
  • Electrocardiography / psychology
  • Female
  • Heart Rate / physiology
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Pain Management / methods*
  • Pain Management / psychology
  • Pain Measurement / methods*
  • Pain Measurement / psychology
  • Respiratory Rate / physiology*
  • Time Factors
  • Young Adult