Breathing is the most basic movement pattern and very often done incorrectly, having tremendous consequences in terms of our musculoskeletal health. If we think about how often we breathe (every moment of our lives), it is easy to see how incorrect patterns can lead to problems. Faulty breathing patterns and the impact they have are often overlooked because it is such a subtle and involuntary movement that we typically do not consciously think about.
Breathing is life. It is common to think of breathing only in terms of respiration, which is obviously essential to sustaining life. But the effects go beyond the basic respiratory function. There has been much research demonstrating a link between breathing pattern disorders and low back pain, neck pain, shoulder imbalances, TMJ pain, poor motor control and posture.
Posture and breathing are directly related. One cannot be addressed without the other. Breathing pattern disorders usually develop as we begin to develop poor postural patterns very early in life. Watching an infant is a great way to see proper breathing, as they have not yet learned to do it the wrong way.
The diaphragm, the main muscle responsible for breathing, can be seen as an essential component of the core function. If we think of the trunk as a cylinder or column, with muscles and fascia wrapping around as a belt, the diaphragm acts a lid, while the pelvic floor muscles make up the floor. Often when working the core, we often focus on the abdominal muscles and do not consider the importance of the diaphragm. If breathing is not correct, one cannot have full core stability.
An easy way to assess your breathing is to stand in front of a mirror placing one hand on the upper part of the chest and one hand over the abdomen. Take a deep breath and notice the movement of the hands. If the hand on the chest elevates, this indicates incorrect breathing, or thoracic breathing.
The correct pattern is when inhaling, the abdomen expands, pushing the hand over the abdomen forward, or outward. The hand on the chest should not move much. This is known as diaphragmatic breathing, and properly engages the diaphragm.
Thoracic breathing engages muscles of the chest, upper back and neck as the primary breathing muscles. Over time, these muscles will develop tension from overloading and doing more work than they are designed to do. While these muscles are overworking, the diaphragm is under-working, contributing to core weakness and the long list of consequences that result.
Awareness of breathing pattern disorders through the simple test above is an important step. To begin working on correcting the pattern, try the following. Lay supine (on your back) and prop your legs up on a cushion, or support, so that the hips and knees are both at 90 degree angles. If you cannot do that, simply laying on the back with knees bent will also work. Place one hand on the abdomen and the other on the chest and breathe normally trying pull the breath into the abdomen. With each inhalation, the goal is expand the abdomen lifting the hand. The ribcage will also expand a bit laterally, but should not elevate. Try to stay as relaxed as possible while doing this and don’t worry about taking deep breaths. Breathe easily and normally. Do this for a few minutes three to four times a day.
This will start to groove the movement pattern and reprogram the system. Gradually you will begin notice when breathing incorrectly and will more easily be able switch to diaphragmatic breathing. It is more difficult to do this while upright, which is why the supine position is the best way to start the training process. It is very important to work on posture simultaneously in order to achieve the best, long lasting results. It is very difficult to breathe correctly with poor posture.
Also keep in mind that this is a process. It will not change overnight. It takes a lot of work and consistency to retrain a system that has been in place for so long. Remember how often you breathe, and for how long it has been done incorrectly! Do not get frustrated if you feel like you are getting nowhere. Keep working on it. If you feel you need more help, consider seeking the help of a professional who has experience with this. Many chiropractors, acupuncturists, yoga instructors, trainers, physical therapists, massage therapists and other types of body workers can be very helpful.
There are many other health benefits to proper breathing in addition to musculoskeletal health. One can write volumes on breathing in terms of musculoskeletal, biochemical, respiratory, mental/emotional, endocrine, neurological and spiritual health. Many types of meditation and relaxation exercise focus on the breath. It is synonymous with life. So contribute a few easy minutes a day to your breathing, and ultimately your health. It is a worthy cause.
Robert Inesta, DC, L.Ac, CCSP