The Importance of Breathing Properly

by Karen Lee Richards

Everyone knows that breathing is essential to life. Life begins when we inhale our first breath and ends when we exhale our last breath. It's an autonomic function we seldom think about. It's also something that most fibromyalgia patients, as well as many other chronic pain patients, do not do correctly.

People in pain will often hold their breath for short periods of time without even realizing it. And when they do breathe, they frequently have a very shallow, disordered breathing pattern. While this is probably an unconscious protective reaction to pain, it can actually increase the level of pain as well as worsening other fibromyalgia symptoms.

Proper vs. Improper Breathing

Breathing affects virtually every part of the body. It oxygenates the body, revitalizing organs, cells and tissues. Breathing properly:

  • Fuels energy production

  • Improves focus and concentration

  • Eliminates toxins

  • Strengthens the immune system

  • Improves bowel function

  • Reduces stress, tension and anxiety

  • Increases feelings of calmness and relaxation

  • Can lower blood pressure

  • Increases metabolism, aiding in digestion and weight loss.

On the other hand, not breathing correctly can cause problems for a number of systems in the body, including the immune, circulatory, endocrine and nervous systems. Improper breathing can produce a variety of symptoms including:

  • Mental fog

  • Dizziness

  • Numbness

  • Anxiety

  • Chest pain

  • Digestive problems

  • Irritable bowel

  • Neck and shoulder pain

Breathing and Fibromyalgia

According to Richard Podell, MD, "More than half of our patients with fibromyalgia develop a disordered pattern of breathing. They take very small rapid breaths using the small muscles of their chest instead of slow, deep breathing with the large muscles of the abdomen. These changes are subtle and most people who 'hyperventilate' in this manner don't realize that their breathing pattern is out of sync.

"Shallow chest breathing makes people feel tense. Slow, deep abdominal breathing creates feelings of calmness. Disordered breathing can also cause a broad array of frightening symptoms including mental fog, dizziness, irritability, chest pain, feeling numb and more. Worsening symptoms then disrupt breathing further resulting in further difficulties for the person with fibromyalgia."

Are Your Breathing Properly?

To find out if you are breathing properly:

  • Lie flat on your back, stand up straight, or sit up straight in a chair.

  • Place your hand just below your ribs, on your abdomen.

  • Breathe as you normally do.

  • Notice: Does your hand on your abdominal area rise? Or does your upper chest rise? (You may even feel your shoulders rise slightly.)

  • If your abdomen rises and your chest stays relatively flat, you are breathing properly.

  • If your abdomen barely moves and your chest rises, you are not breathing properly and need to practice the breathing exercise described below.

Learning to Breathe Properly

  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. (Although you can do this exercise while sitting or standing, it's easiest to practice by lying down at first.)

  2. Place your hands on your abdomen.

  3. Breathe in through your nose, counting to four. Picture a balloon in your belly that you're inflating with the air you are inhaling. Your hands should rise as your abdomen fills with air.

  4. Hold the breath for a few seconds.

  5. Exhale slowly through your mouth, counting to four. Picture letting the air out of your belly balloon. Your hands should go down as your abdomen deflates.

Practice this exercise for a minimum of five minutes at a time, at least two or three times a day. You've probably been breathing improperly for a long time, so it may take awhile to retrain your body to breathe properly without you thinking about it. Some exercise techniques such as yoga, Pilates, and tai chi stress proper breathing techniques and can be particularly helpful in training your body to breathe correctly.


Podell, Richard. "Reversing Eight Vicious Cycles that Block Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Healing." 5/10/07.

Crimer, Patti. "Fibromyalgia gains relief from Body/Mind and Spirit Exercise." NFA Online Newsletter, Vol. 3, No. 18. 10/9/03.

Hibbard, Dawn. "The Final Frontier - The Human Brain." Kettering University. 9/2/04

"Breathe Deeply." The Oasis Institute. 6/1/04.

Last Updated: 6/30/2007