Altered Breathing Patterns & the Dramatic Impact They Have on our Health: Practical Tips on how to Recognize the Signs & Symptoms and Improve our Breathing.
Disclaimer: Please consult a medical professional if you discover a breathing problem and especially before starting an exercise program.
Why is Breathing so Important to our Physical Health?
We breathe on average 25000 times per day and for the most part we don't think about it and how important good breathing is to our health. Each of those 25000 breaths requires rib cage expansion and diaphragm muscle contraction, so we should start to see how important it is that they can move and function normally. Many of us have dysfunctional breathing patterns and are completely unaware. These dysfunctions develop gradually due to things like poor posture, stress, injuries, & bad habits like sucking our stomachs in. Our nervous system will adapt to the poor pattern to ensure you can still get air in & out, but the adaptations very often have very serious consequences on our health. Even minor breathing problems can have an impact on everything from our blood ph & blood pressure, to our core stability, hip, lower, back, neck & shoulder function.
What is the Diaphragm Muscle and Why is it so Important to Breathing and Core Function?
The Diaphragm in addition to being the key muscle for breathing is a major core stabilizer. On Inhalation the diaphragm descends into our abdomen and increases pressure and stiffness in the intra-abdominal cavity (area between your ribs and pelvis), while creating low pressure in the chest, which causes air to rush in. The further the diaphragm moves into our abdomen, the greater the increase in pressure and depth of our breath.
Very commonly our diaphragm will become too flat due to a number of factors, the most common of which is poor posture (increased arch in lower back, rib flare in the front etc...). In some circles this is called loss of the zone of apposition (ZOA).
Postural Issues and the loss of ZOA most often start in childhood and adolescence. Things to look out for in children are flared ribs in the front, underdeveloped abdominal muscles, knock knees, flat feet, large arch in the lower back with rounded shoulders and breathing from their chest. A number of these issues are often present in toddlers but as they mature these issues should improve. If not they should have a breathing, posture, core function assessment with a trained professional.
When we start to lose function in our diaphragm we will always adapt to preserve breathing by using accessory breathing muscles, primarily in our neck & shoulders. These accessory muscles become overworked, tired, tense, and sore. The movement of our ribs when using accessory muscles is also altered, as the whole rib cage is pulled up and to the front nearly as one unit and over time it will become altered in shape in these directions (we often call this barrel chest). This barrel chest shape leads to problems with many of the muscles attaching to them, especially core muscles (most of which attach to the ribs, and the diaphragm.
So as we can see a problem with breathing will have a serious negative impact on core stability. This goes the other way around as any decrease in core stability will cause the diaphragm to diaphragm to contract in an effort to increase pressure and stability. This is a vicious circle of two problems, which will gradually worsen over time if the cycle is left unaltered.
It is for this reason that every patient in my clinic is checked for breathing in sitting, standing and lying down. A cannot understate the importance of correcting breathing problems due to the negative affects it can have all over our bodies.
Below Is a few links if you would like some more in depth information on the diaphragm &breathing physiology
CTRL + CLICK Here if you want to find out more about the role of the diaphragm in core stability.
CTRL + CLICK Here for a simple explanation of Breathing Physiology:
The link below is a great article on understanding how to begin learning where your core is and how to control it. CTRL + CLICK Here
What are some Common Early Symptoms we Should Watch out for?
What Can we do at Home to Assess our Breathing & Posture?
The best position to start a self breathing assessment is lying on our backs. Place one hand over the lower ribs and abdomen and the other on our chest. Breathe in & out normally and monitor the following:
Watch the video below for a simple home breathing check
Watch the Video Below for a simple home postural check
If you are interested in some general advice on posture in standing CTRL + CLICK HERE
So now that you know how to figure out if you have some basic breathing or postural issues you're likely asking What can we do at Home to Improve our Breathing?
While every person will have different issues there is some general advice that will benefit most of us.
The most important thing is to practice your breathing very regularly, at least twice a day for a few minutes. Start lying on your back or stomach first until you are comfortable breathing into your sides (360 degrees of lower rib movement), then you can move to all 4’s, then half kneeling, kneeling, sitting, standing & then during normal activities.
A great starter exercise for breathing (especially chest breathers) is "Crocodile Breathing".
Lie on your stomach with hands placed under your forehead and breathe slowly. Breathing this way gives feedback as your stomach pushes into the ground. You will also want to feel your back and rib cage moving out at the sides and back so that there is 360 degree expansion of your lower ribs. Most commonly it is only the front ribs moving forward excessively with no movement at the sides and back (belly breathing) or simply chest breathing with no abdomen movement.
We can see another great starter exercise called 90/90 breathing in the video below, which means lying on your back with your hips and knees at 90 degrees with heels resting on something (chair, wall, ball). This position helps to lower your bottom ribs and flatten the arch in your lower back, which for many is a huge factor in breathing problems. It is important to feel the your ribs moving into the floor and out to the sides on inhalation, and your lower ribs lowering down on exhalation.
Once you are comfortable with crocodile and 90/90 breathing you can progress to the next exercise all 4's belly breathing. We are up middle spine into a more flexed position and lowering our ribs down and emphasizing feeling the breath enter the back side of our chest and abdominal wall. So we should feel the ribs in the back moving as we breathe.
The above exercises will give a great start to retaining your breathing but in many cases these are some physical restrictions to movement in the muscles, joints, ribcage which may need to be addressed to allow you to get into the right posture and move the correct way. The two exercises below are commonly used to loosen the ribs and mid back.
Many people also require some help win getting ribs, muscles, and other structures physically released/loosened with the help of a professional in the form of manipulation, mobilization and/or massage. If some of these key structures have been tight for years it may be too difficult to get them moving on your own, which will slow your progress significantly.
Final Comments and Take Home Points
This is a much more complicated and diverse issue than what I have covered in this article, I simply hope to have provided some practical information that can help you to breathe better.