How Breathing Exercises Can Help Your Headaches

Suzy is a 49 year old woman who saw me for daily headaches, ear pain, and fatigue. Her routine blood tests all came back normal. I helped her breathe better though her nose with allergy control, nasal saline irrigation, and nasal dilator strips. But the one thing she said helped the most was the deep-breathing exercises that I taught her.
In yogic breathing, the relaxing breath is performed by taking a slow, deep breath in through your nose on a count of 4, holding for a few seconds, and then breathing out slowly through your mouth on a count of 7. Then the cycle is repeated 4 to 5 times. I had her do this exercise multiple times per day: upon awakening, in-between major tasks or activities, and for 5 minutes just before bedtime. 
Noted integrative physician Andrew Weil has pointed out the breathing in (inhalation) stimulates the sympathetic nervous system (the fight-or-flight response), whereas breathing out (exhalation) stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system (the relaxing response). So by spending more time breathing out, the more relaxed you’ll be.
Another key concept to consider in Buteyko breathing is that by slowing down your breathing, you’re able to raise carbon dioxide (CO2) levels, which can make you calmer and feel more relaxed. During my neurosurgery rotation in my surgical internship year, I distinctly remember that we gave acetazolamide to lower intracranial pressures. Acetazolamide raises CO2, which is known to lower pressure inside your brain cavity.
In the sleep apnea research literature, obstructive sleep apnea has been strongly associated with elevated pressures within the brain cavity. One study found increased pressure, worse during sleep and highest in REM sleep, when apneas are most common. Pressures were also higher in the morning compared with evening pressures. This may explain morning headaches which are commonly seen in people with sleep apnea. Another small study reported on six adult patients with idiopathic intracranial hypertension (IIH) who all had various degrees of vision loss, and swelling of the optic nerve. One patient received acetazolamide alone, four received both acetazolamide and CPAP, and one got CPAP alone. Four had complete return of their vision loss and three had no more swelling of the optic nerve after treatment. 
This is one example of how many natural healing options may work to various degrees, with scientific explanations. 
How many of you practice deep-breathing exercises on a regular basis? How has your life improved as a result of doing these exercises? Please enter your responses in the box below.

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2 thoughts on “How Breathing Exercises Can Help Your Headaches

  1. Being a music teachers son, playing the trombone, and singing I have well learned to breath from my diaphragm. In that way I suppose that most all of my breathing is “deep breathing”.

    Learning to breath in a more eucapnic manner has resulted in good control of traumatic stress related daytime panic attacks, freedom from “allergies”, the return of ticklishness to my feet, less headaches easily cured, and the ability to think more clearly in stressful environments. Likely it has also resulted in better health in general as well.

    One thing I have learned about breathing. It needs to be the right amount to support your right now metabolic needs.

    Certainly doing too little breathing is not good. Everyone seems to know that too little oxygen is bad for you. But breathing too little will tend to increase your carbon dioxide levels and too much carbon dioxide tends to be hard on the circulatory system (higher blood pressure as the heart strains to move a lot of blood through very opened up blood vessels while attempting to move the carbon dioxide out of the system). It also seems to make us sluggish in terms of brain function.

    But seemingly hidden from medical view are the dangers of too much breathing. If you breath too much too long your carbon dioxide levels are likely to drop well below the healthy zone. Your blood vessels will then constrict especially in the brain perhaps causing such deep cell starvation within the brain that you may well “see stars” (aura) or even loose consciousness.

    When I was first diagnosed with severe sleep apnea with extreme hypoxia I came to notice that during times without stimulation (e.g. sitting at a service in church) I would become sluggish (possibly hypercapnia). I think that some deep breathing during that time would have helped greatly. Indeed I would force myself to breath more and did do better.

    But about two years later I was traumatically assaulted and robbed. For the next two years I made visits to the emergency room as I experienced panic attacks as the anniversary of the assault was upon me. For days I would find myself breathing hard with a very high heart rate. Using my CPAP at night I would often find myself waking up breathing very hard (and wanting more!) with my heart beating out of my chest, a very dry mouth, and aerophagia. As I tried to go back to sleep again my legs would often jerk and my feet tended to cramp. The visits to the emergency room were often preceded by about two days with little or no sleep.

    But as I was preparing for the dreaded anniversary season in a following year I listened to Dr. Park’s interview of Patrick McGowan concerning Buteyko Breathing. In that interview Patrick described some of the basic physiology involved with proper carbon dioxide maintenance. I wanted my hands free for taking notes so did not hold my nose or bob my head up and down – yet – as I performed the presented “nose clearing exercise” my nose did clear. As well I could feel the blood and warmth come back into my feet and my raised heart rate settled down.

    It became clear to me that my “panic attacks” were times of long term facilitated over breathing.

    I employed my pulse oximeter to find the lowest heart rates controlling breathing level while holding exertion constant. As I did this I noticed that the lowest heart rates were consistently found at an SpO2 of 96% at my desk and 97% while doing moderate exercise on a tread mill. I “trained” immersion style with my pulse oximeter constantly on my wrist for the next three months. Other physiological guideposts became apparent as I learned that my nose “stuffiness” is a useful first sign that I am breathing too much. Plumping of the veins on the back of my hand at heart level seems to indicate too much or too little breathing. If I had a headache I would consistently find that the SpO2 was at or above 98%. In a quiet space cupping my hand over my ear would not hear any heartbeat if the SpO2 was “in the zone” but a “fush fush” sound would turn into a “knock knock” which could even become “like an engine knocking” as the SpO2 rose (and apparently the carbond dioxide levels lowered) moving “out of the zone” and apparently resulting in changes to the circulatory environment. If I experience pain in my joints as I exercise I use my constantly available pulse oximeter to get back in the zone and the pain goes away (or does not occur if I start with it).

    It is many years later and I still pack and use my pulse oximeter to guide my breathing. I also plan to pursue breathing based mindfulness meditation and yoga.

    I do not know what has caused by breathing control to become ineffective. I am glad to find ways to breath better.