Relaxation and chronic pain

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teen girl relaxing

​​M​any people with chronic pain have lost their ability to relax their bodies because they have spent so much time in pain. Their muscles often become chronically tense. This can lead to several problems, including increased headaches. As a result, these people sometimes need to re-learn how to fully relax.

Your health team might recommend specific exercises to help you become more relaxed and may teach specific relaxation techniques to reduce tense muscles throughout your body. Practising these relaxation techniques during your “wind down” time in the hour before bed might also help you fall asleep faster.

You can do different types of relaxation:

Progressive muscle relaxation with tension

Progressive muscle relaxation with tension involves tensing and relaxing specific muscle groups throughout your body. Practising this technique can help to relieve physical tension in your body, reducing stress and anxiety.

How do I practise progressive muscle relaxation?

Many people find it helpful to listen to a recording that guides them through the process of tensing and relaxing their muscles. Click on the recording below to try it out for yourself.


How much and how long to tense and relax

How much you tense a muscle and how long you tense it before relaxing is up to you. Whatever amount of time you choose should be comfortable and not cause pain. Clenching your muscles too much or for too long may make your pain worse, especially if it is already widespread. When the exercise tells you to tense a particularly painful part of your body, try to just tense the muscles in that area very gently at first so that you don’t get a pain flare.

How to set yourself up for progressive muscle relaxation

You may do progressive muscle relaxation in any comfortable, well-supported position, either sitting or lying down. To get the most out of it, limit potential distractions, for example by turning off your phone and other electronics.

Relaxation with imagery

This type of exercise also involves relaxing your muscles. If you have ever done a body scan in a yoga class, you might have focused on your muscles and on your surroundings (for example, sounds and smells in the room). This exercise is different because it requires you to focus only on the muscles that you are trying to relax.

How do I practise relaxation with imagery?

The audio recording below will guide you through muscle relaxation with imagery. As with the progressive relaxation exercise, find a comfortable, quiet place to sit or lie down and remove any distractions.


When stress is building up or if you are having a very busy day, you might not be able to take 20 minutes to use relaxation techniques. This is where mini-relaxation can be useful. It is a quick and easy way to relax when you feel stress, combining belly breathing​ (see below) and muscle relaxation.

How do I practise mini-relaxation?

Read through the steps below and practise them while sitting in a comfortable chair or lying down.

  1. Take a long deep breath in through your nose for a count of five.
  2. Feel your belly rise as you take that deep breath.
  3. Hold your breath while you count to five in your head.
  4. Roll your shoulders in a big circle and let them drop loose.
  5. Think about relaxing your body.
  6. Breathe out through your mouth, slow and relaxed, for another count of five, as if you’re softly whistling.
  7. When you have finished breathing out, stretch out your entire body, pointing your fingers and toes away from you.

If you do not have time to do this mini-relaxation, even taking one deep breath and stretching your whole body can help your body start a relaxation response.

Belly breathing

​​What is belly breathing and how can it help?

Abdominal breathing, or belly breathing, is when you focus on bringing air in and out of your body by expanding your belly rather than expanding your chest. It is a great way to relax and focus your attention away from pain. Deep breathing can also lower your blood pressure and heart rate and help improve your concentration.

How do I practise belly breathing?

Check out the animation below to learn how to belly breathe. Like with many things, the best way to become good at belly breathing is to keep practising. The better you are at belly breathing, the faster you’ll be able to relax when you’re feeling stressed or having pain.

Last updated: May 2nd 2016