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Deep Breathing and Pain Management

A new study has found that deep-breathing relaxation techniques can help patients cope with pain and anxiety during a medical procedure following coronary bypass surgery. According to a paper published in Heart & Lung (2006; 35 [4], 269–76), researchers at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, conducted a small pain management study in which they compared the value of using deep-breathing relaxation exercises together with pain-relieving drugs versus using drugs alone.

Forty patients at three acute-care facilities in the Midwest were divided into two groups. Investigators taught members of the relaxation group a deep-breathing technique that consisted of inhaling slowly through the nose and exhaling slowly through pursed lips. Subjects either closed their eyes or focused on an object in the room. Each participant practiced the technique for 5 minutes before healthcare workers removed the chest tube dressing and sutures. During the actual chest tube removal, subjects held their breath. After the procedure, researchers encouraged patients to continue the deep breathing as long as they preferred. Members of the pain-reliever-only group followed the standard procedure with no additional coaching on how to relax. Before, during and after the procedure, scientists measured participants’ pain levels.

Both groups experienced high levels of pain both before and during the procedure. However, members of the deep-breathing group reported significantly lower pain ratings during the 15-minute period after the procedure. The value of this finding is that deep breathing is inexpensive, has no adverse side effects and is easy to teach. On the other hand, the study’s impact is limited, owing to the small sample size and the fact that subjects were recruited from three independent sites, meaning there could have been disparity in how the various procedures were administrated.


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Shirley Archer-Eichenberger, JD, MA

Shirley Archer, JD, MA, is an internationally acknowledged integrative health and mindfulness specialist, best-selling author of 16 fitness and wellness books translated into multiple languages and sold worldwide, award-winning health journalist, contributing editor to Fitness Journal, media spokesperson, and IDEA's 2008 Fitness Instructor of the Year. She's a 25-year industry veteran and former health and fitness educator at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, who has served on multiple industry committees and co-authored trade books and manuals for ACE, ACSM and YMCA of the USA. She has appeared on TV worldwide and was a featured trainer on America's Next Top Model.

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