The breath – something so basic, yet so essential to our survival. We breathe naturally without even having to think about it. Even though this is something that happens automatically, most people don’t realize the importance of breathing correctly to enhance the body’s function. Every breath oxygenates the blood which is then delivered to other systems of the body including the brain, heart, other organs, and muscles to allow for proper function.
As a physical therapist, I see patients with a variety of conditions – such as neck, back and shoulder pain and those having difficulty tolerating basic daily activities like walking – where incorrect breathing is contributing to their symptoms. When you breathe, it is important to allow the lungs to fully expand. This, in turn, allows the little muscles between each rib to move and fully expand the ribcage to maintain normal mobility through the trunk and spine. This also ensures that you are getting enough oxygen to the rest of the body.
So many people today have sedentary jobs which require sitting for long hours hunched over a desk or computer. Also, the excessive use of smart phones and tablets contribute to poor posture which negatively affects breathing mechanics. This creates compression throughout the upper body, especially the trunk, and restricts the rib cage from fully expanding. This forces other muscles to assist. Over time, this increases the tension in these muscles which can lead to many painful muscular conditions. This also prevents enough oxygen to be received in the blood stream, leading to poor aerobic capacity and a gradual decline in cardiovascular efficiency. As a result, this can make it difficult to perform any activity – such as walking – for long periods of time.
When the thoracic spine and rib cage become restricted, one of the most common compensation patterns that people demonstrate is elevating their shoulders and chest –using the muscles around the neck. But, instead, you should isolate your diaphragm to allow as much space as possible within the thoracic cavity without using the muscles attached to your neck, chest, and shoulders.
Now, let’s improve your breathing efficiency by learning to breathe with your diaphragm.
Start by lying on your back, or in a sitting position. Put one hand on your stomach and one hand on your chest. Now, take a deep breath….Belly should rise.
Which hand is moving toward the ceiling? If only the hand on your stomach rises, good job! If the hand on your chest rises toward the ceiling that means you are using your neck and chest muscles to breathe, which will increase tension in these muscles. Now, take another breath. This time, focus on keeping the hand on your chest completely still, and only allow the hand on your stomach to rise. With every inhale, your stomach should round out, and with each exhale it should flatten back out.
Next, take another deep breath. But, this time, focus on breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth. With every breath in, you will bring in oxygen to the bloodstream. With every breath out, you will release toxins from your body.
Finally, slow down your breathing. Take approximately 4-6 seconds to inhale. Your exhale should last about two times the length of your inhale, or about 8-12 seconds. This will allow you to better focus on using your diaphragm to breath, keeping all other muscles relaxed, to get as much oxygen as possible into the bloodstream to be delivered throughout your body. Slowing down your breath is also helpful to manage stress and improve your general sense of well-being.
Try practicing this every day for just five minutes until this becomes a more natural way for you to breathe. You will find that you will feel better, and that your body is moving more freely and functioning better.
About Mary Stewart, PT, DPT, OCS
Mary is a Doctor of Physical Therapy, Board Certified Orthopedic Clinical Specialist, and Clinical Director of Loudoun Physical Therapy. She graduated from Texas Tech University in 2006 prior to receiving a Master’s degree in Physical Therapy at Texas Women’s University in 2008. She later completed her Doctorate of Physical Therapy and prides herself in incorporating the most recent and cutting edge research into her practice. This Dallas, Texas native specializes in manual therapy for a variety of orthopedic conditions including injuries to the upper and lower extremities, and spine. Mary also has training in vestibular rehabilitation and enjoys treating balance and gait dysfunctions. She is certified in advanced trigger point dry needling, and incorporates it as a tool to get her patients better faster. Mary is the primary therapist for the aquatic program at Loudoun Physical Therapy and is the Virginia State representative for the Aquatic Section of the American Physical Therapy Association. When Mary has free time, she enjoys yoga, biking, wine tasting, traveling with her husband, and the outdoors. She loves basketball and is a die hard Dallas Mavericks fan.
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