Breathe Like A Baby. Again.
Let me guess, you already know how to breathe and you've been succeeding at it since you came into this world? I'm willing to bet that you're wrong. Chances are good that at some point throughout your life you stopped breathing with your belly and morphed into the all-too-common chest breather.
Quick, find a baby, any baby will do. Now watch how that little baby's belly moves high to the sky and back down with every breath. Does your belly move when you breathe- because it should.
The diaphragm is our primary breathing muscle. It is a strong intrinsic core stabilizer muscle that connects to the sternum and xiphoid process in the front of the chest, the lower half of the rib cage on both sides, as well as the upper lumbar vertebra and their adjacent vertebral discs in the spine. As we use our diaphragm to inhale, negative pressure is increased within the lungs allowing air to rush in and our bellies slightly rise. When the diaphragm relaxes it returns to its normal resting position while any additional air within the lungs is passively forced out.
Where's The Problem?
As we age, we move less and sit more. Sitting with poor posture means the abdomen becomes crunched down, leaving no room for the diaphragm to properly expand. The body has to now compensate in order to get the job done. This is how we become chest breathers. The little muscles that connect our upper ribs to our cervical spine become overworked with hopes of expanding the rib cage, allowing us to get a full breath of oxygen. The average person takes approximately 15 breaths every minute, or 21,600 breaths in 24 hours. If you're relying on compensation patterns in order to maintain your broken down breathing patterns, it is only a matter of time before the body becomes angry and throws up a flare. Commence neck pain.
So Why Stress?
As our stress levels sky rocket we often find ourselves chest breathing more than ever. Our body has realized it no longer needs to rely on the diaphragm to do its intended job, because the muscles surrounding your neck such as the scalenes, SCMs and the levator scapula, have been re-trained to pick up the slack. The diaphragm quickly becomes short and tight, and compresses on the surrounding structures that pierces through it. One of the major structures being the sympathetic trunk, the main neural pathway responsible for triggering your fight or flight response. If our body is not getting the full oxygen content that it craves, we further engrain the pattern of poor breathing by taking even more breaths per minute. This is a recipe for disaster- headaches, neck pain, back pain to name a few.
What To Do?
Learn how to breathe like a baby again! There are a few variations of belly breathing that can be done in almost any setting. While at home, lay on your belly with your hands overlapped on top of each other and placed between your forehead and the floor. Place your tongue on the roof of your mouth, and continue to slowly breathe in and out through your nose. For extra feedback, place an item such as a book/magazine on your low back. While slowly inhaling, focus on expanding the lower portion of your abdomen first, causing the book to rise up towards the ceiling.
If you find yourself in a public setting where face down belly breathing is frowned upon, such as a business meeting or public transit, try our seated version: Once again, place your tongue on the roof of your mouth and continue to slowly inhale and exhale through your nose. Make sure to sit up tall with good posture-that means no slouching! If possible, place one hand over your belly button, with the other hand resting on top of your chest. As you breath, focus on trying to fill your lower abdomen with air first, causing your bellybutton-hand to move prior to your other hand. Complete anywhere from 1-3 minutes throughout the day.
At Arvada Sport and Spine Group, our chiropractors and physical therapist focus on correcting the cause of pain and not merely treating the symptoms. In order to do that we must realize that often chronic symptoms of pain and inflammation are signs of faulty muscle compensation patterns developed over time. Breathing like a baby can be trickier than you think. Keep practicing and your body will thank you.
Alyx Brown DC, MS, CCSP