The Functional Back

Back pain self-treatment featuring the Hubble Method

The link between breathing and back pain

Finger LieCan the way you breathe affect your back pain? It not only can, it definitely does. Our response to stress, either mental or physical, is to chest breathe. That means we inflate only our upper lungs, without fully contracting and releasing our diaphragm muscle, so our abdomens barely expand. Vulnerable areas of our bodies respond to all of this by getting tight.

John Sarno, MD, first identified the effects on our low backs in the 1980s, without making the breath connection. He called it Tension Myositis Syndrome, or TMS. Specifically, he described TMS as a harmless but very painful change in muscles, nerves, joints, and tendons due to the autonomic nervous system responding to our emotions by reducing blood flow to those areas. That caused localized oxygen deprivation, which we felt as pain, numbness and/or tingling, weakness, tension, and general dysfunction. You can read more about it in his book, Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection.

But this concept isn’t new. Anyone with yoga experience is familiar with the concept of “breathing through” tight areas to release them while in specific poses. So TMS isn’t so much a syndrome as a basic physiological response to lack of blood flow and thus lack of oxygen. Which means it is very reversible.

To see how it works, try this:

  1. Place your fingers in the grooves on either side of your low back, right beside your spine, in the indentations called intervertebral joints (see photo). What do you feel, if anything, in your low back?
  2. Next, practice meditation or progressive relaxation (there’s a specialized back pain audio program available in the TFB online store) for 15-30 minutes in a back-friendly lying position. I suggest using a towel roll under your low back and a chair to support your lower legs at a 90 degree angle.
  3. Following your relaxation session, repeat step #1. What do you feel now? Share and compare your results!

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