• Lisa Shaw PT, DPT, PHC

Discovering the Magic of Breathing

If you missed the first part of our discussion on breathing, be sure to read it here before continuing on with this post. To summarize, breathing is something we all do and take for granted, but the way we breathe can have a tremendous impact on how we move and how we feel. The primary muscle responsible for breathing is the diaphragm. The diaphragm sits in the middle of the trunk, attaching to the lower ribs. When it contracts, the ribs expand so the lungs can fill with air. One little known fact about the diaphragm is that it is also part of the "core." That's right - the diaphragm works with the abdominal, low back and pelvic floor muscles to provide postural control and stability as we move. How does this work, you may ask? Read on!


When pressure is good…


Our bodies are pressure systems. When we regulate the pressure well with air support, we function better. Dr. Mary Massery, a physical therapist, developed the soda pop model of postural control, which is a great way to describe pressure regulation in the human body. First, imagine that the can is closed and remember how firm a closed can is. Then, imagine popping the top and remember how quickly the can collapses when squeezed. This analogy can help you understand how the core really extends above the diaphragm to the vocal folds at the top and down to the pelvic floor below. Problems anywhere in this system can be closely connected to each other. Knowing how these muscles work together will help your whole body function better.


What are some bad habits you might find with your breathing strategies?

· Holding your breath: There are a few times this is appropriate, such as lifting a really heavy weight that requires a high level of pressure support or reaching something very high that requires maximum stability. Sometimes we hold our breath for movement more often that we realize. Breath holding when it is not necessary can affect the function of the canister, and this can be problematic when dealing with issues such as urinary leakage or low back pain.

· Chest breathing: You might be using this strategy too much if your upper chest moves up or out a lot while you are breathing, and your abdomen and ribs don’t tend to move at all. This pattern can cause overuse of the accessory respiratory muscles located in the neck and shoulders. These muscles are better off staying relaxed while we breathe. If they are overworked, they can become sore and develop trigger points, which can cause neck pain and headaches.

· Belly breathing: If you exaggerate your belly breath, which occurs sometimes in vocalists, instrumentalists, and yogis, you might be creating too much downward pressure on your pelvic floor, and you might also be lacking rib mobility and chest breath that will allow mobility through your upper body.

· Breathing too quickly: In our fast-paced society, many of us over breathe and have a high resting respiratory rate. Rapid breathing can actually change the pH in our bodies to make us more acidic. An acidic pH is associated with a pro-inflammatory state. Additionally, increased breath rate activates the fight or flight part of the nervous system. This might be helpful if you have 15 minutes to clean your home before company arrives but doesn’t help if you are tired, stressed or struggling with anxiety.

Best breath…

Remember, breathing is a magical thing. We know through our clinical experience and medical research that breathing better can help with the healing process for a variety of ailments. Practicing breathing both at rest and while doing activities or exercise that we want to improve will optimize the system. To start, practice some umbrella breaths (ideally while lying down). This can help stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system, and help you feel relaxed and calm. If you really want to work on what breath (or combinations of different breaths) is best for you, we recommend having this assessed by a physical therapist. Incorporating a variety of breathing strategies will help you succeed wherever life is taking you.


Want to have Dr. Shaw or another one of our physical therapists evaluate your breathing and how you can use breath to improve movement? Reach out to schedule an appointment!

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