Don’t Forget to Breathe.


By Michele Christian, PT, DPT

Fatigue.  Back pain.  Incontinence.  Dizziness.  Anxiety.  A wide variety of common symptoms, but what is the link between them?  

Breathing.  The simple task we do every day, most of the time without even noticing.  This task, though simple in nature, goes far beyond simply bringing oxygen in and sending carbon dioxide out.  Breathing is a whole-body activity that requires the deepest muscles in our body, including the diaphragm and the intercostal muscles, to coordinate as we draw air in and release air out, leading to chain reactions in the body.  With effective inhalation, the diaphragm contracts, lowering into the abdomen to create more space in the chest for the lungs to expand.  This is then followed by the relaxation and rise of the diaphragm, decreasing the space in the chest to facilitate the exhalation of carbon dioxide.  

When breathing well, our body is able to use our diaphragm to manage pressures in the lungs, the heart, and the abdomen in response to physical demands.  However, when breathing poorly, our body ends up finding new movement patterns to compensate, potentially leading to persistent fatigue and anxiety, as well as pain due to faulty movement patterns.

Some common symptoms of ineffective breathing include:

  • Deep sighs, frequent yawns
  • Increased tension of neck musculature
  • Shortness of breath with low level activities
  • Snoring/sleep apnea

We are breathing all the time, most of the time without noticing, so how do we know if we are breathing effectively?  Try this simple method to see if you are breathing from your diaphragm or using a compensatory method: 

  1. Place one hand on your chest and one hand on your abdomen.
  2. Slowly inhale.  Which hand rises first?

If you notice that the hand on your chest rises first, or the hand on your abdomen doesn’t rise at all, this can be a sign that you need to fine-tune your breathing.  This can be done through practicing Diaphragmatic Breathing:

  1. Place one hand on your chest and one hand on your abdomen.
  2. Slowly inhale into your abdomen, feeling the abdomen expand first, then your chest.
  3. Hold your breath for a brief moment.
  4. Slowly exhale, feeling the abdomen pull away from your hand.
  5. Take a few normal, relaxed breaths to reduce lightheadedness, then repeat again up to 10 times per day.

Breathing is ingrained into our everyday lives and requires an unconscious synergy of movement.  However, a disruption in this pattern can create a chain reaction throughout the body, manifesting as brain fog, problematic movement patterns, or chronic pain.  If you are experiencing difficulty with diaphragmatic breathing in addition to persistent pain or fatigue, consult with a healthcare professional or skilled physical therapist to see if your breathing strategy is impacting your health.

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