Friday, January 18, 2013

“Breathing Into” Tense or Injured Muscles

Physical therapists and others often recommend that their patients “breathe into” their injuries. If you have a sprained ankle they might advise that you concentrate on your breath and focus on the ankle while you are doing so. Some health and wellness specialists tout that this increases the oxygen sent to the tissue around the injury. Unfortunately, there are no known pathways or systems in the body that allow conscious thought to give priority to oxygen to localized body sites, so at first I dismissed this recommendation as misguided. In fact, I think it may be very helpful advice, although the benefits might stem from a completely different mechanism.

Deep breathing allows the body to relax and focusing on an injury or point of soreness while breathing deeply might allow you to trick your brain into relieving tension from this area. In physical therapy, yoga and Pilates, instructors recommend breathing deeply when stretching sore, injured or tight muscles. This is actually very helpful due to the way the cerebral cortex creates memories. “Breathing into” areas of tension teaches the cortical areas responsible for consciously sensing and flexing the muscles that they can interact with the muscles without recruiting the fear system. There are many postures and exercises that I have never done without breathing shallowly or holding my breath. In fact, most of the stretching I have done over the last year I have failed to breathe openly and freely. Because of this my cortex unconsciously assumes that using these muscles should be anxiety provoking and should always be accompanied by shallow breathing. The cortex doesn’t know what is best for us, it only knows what we have caused it to experience in the past. When it makes seemingly new associations the cortex simply remembers what separate areas in the brain have been coactivated in the past – it works on the logic of previous experience. So, if you have never performed a deep back bend while breathing deeply it won’t allow you to do so unless you concentrate concertedly on it.

The cortex calculates unconscious actions based on “prior probability,” so if you want it to retain a memory for something, you need to give it that experience. For this reason, now I make sure that I breathe deeply and slowly whenever I am stretching, especially if I am stretching an injured or tense muscle. Remember, if you hold your breath, or breathe nervously while stretching you are only programming your cortex to further associate nervous bodily states with these movements. Thus if your back becomes sore it will be more likely to take your breath away, and similarly if you become nervous for an unrelated reason, your back is likely to become tight.  This happens all too often with injuries. Because we allow them to frustrate us, we program the brain to associate the injury with stress and shallow breathing, often exacerbating our psychological relationship with the injury and prolonging the recovery process.

For more information on the best way to breathe during these activities click here: