Combat Back Pain Symptoms With the Valsalva Maneuver

How often does back pain bring down your day? If you struggle with chronic back pain, stiffness and discomfort, you're far from alone. In fact, this is the most common cause of disability for American adults.

If you're looking for natural relief, you've probably explored supplements, stretching and support pillows, but have you heard of the Valsalva maneuver? This breathing method has been used to enhance relaxation since ancient times, when it was invented to address middle ear infection.

What Is the Valsalva Maneuver?

When you experience pain, your autonomous nervous system causes changes in your heart rate, blood pressure and breathing. With the Valsalva maneuver, you can use your breathing to affect these biometrics and bring yourself back into a relaxed state.

Each part of the Valsalva maneuver triggers specific responses in the body. These steps force the blood pressure to quickly rise by forcing blood to circulate. After this spike, the blood slowly flows back from the organs, allowing you to enter a relaxed state as blood pressure returns to normal before dropping for a few moments. At the end of the Valsalva, your blood pressure will rebound again into a normal range.

How Do I Do It?

A successful Valsalva maneuver requires these simple steps:

  • Sit or lie down in a comfortable position. 

  • Take a deep breath and hold it in. 

  • Hold your nose like you're about to jump off the high dive.

  • Keep your mouth closed.

  • Pretend you are blowing up a balloon as you attempt to exhale without opening your nose or mouth.

  • Pretend that you have to go "number two" and bear down just as you would in the ladies' room.

Hold these actions for 10 to 15 seconds before releasing. Try the Valsalva whenever your back pain causes a spike in heart rate. Most people report relief of this pain-related symptom within about 20 minutes.

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Why Does It Work?

While we need more research to truly understand the applications of the Valsalva technique for pain relief, clinical studies support this use of the maneuver. Most current research focuses on pain alleviation during spinal tap and other invasive low-back procedures.

Scientists suspect that Valsalva helps tone the vagus nerve, the main information superhighway in our nervous system. Strengthening the vagus by performing this breathing technique may promote optimal digestion, breathing, heart rate, blood pressure and even speech.

You can also take a cue from weight lifters and use the Valsalva maneuver during your workouts. If you lift weights, this trick can help stabilize your core during bench presses, deadlifts, squats and other exercises.

Doctors also use the Valsalva method to diagnose certain cardiac problems. They may recommend this technique for patients who experience a rapid heart rate (tachycardia).

Is It Safe?

Most people can safely perform the Valsalva maneuver. However, ask your doctor first if you have a history of heart health problems, such as high blood pressure or stroke. You should also avoid Valsalva if you have retinopathy or other issues with eye pressure. The first time you do this technique, a health care provider can ensure that you're performing the actions correctly; otherwise, it won't work as expected.

Side effects rarely occur with this maneuver. Some people briefly lose consciousness or feel lightheaded. If the Valsalva maneuver doesn't fix a speeding heartbeat, go to the emergency room if you also have weakness, fainting, lightheadedness, difficulty breathing, or pain in your arm, chest, back, neck or shoulders.

If you frequently experience uncomfortable cardiac symptoms when back pain swells, give the Valsalva a try for relief in those difficult moments. Consider another tool in your arsenal against chronic pain.