Breathing is an essential function of life that occurs involuntarily, yet assuming that our breathing process is always efficient is a big misstep with serious consequences. Proper breathing is critical for optimal health, as it rids our bodies of carbon dioxide while providing our systems with vital oxygen. The more efficient this process is, the more effective we are at removing toxins, performing physically and mentally, and reducing pain – yes, PAIN!
Normal respiratory mechanics plays a key role in our neuromusculoskeletal system by affecting both posture and spinal stabilization. The primary breathing muscles also function as stabilizers of our skeleton. It therefore makes sense that abnormal respiratory mechanics can have detrimental effects on our well-being. Moreover, stress can play a role in dysfunctional breathing by causing us to shorten our breath.
When the proper function of breathing muscles is compromised, the spine is inevitably going to be affected. For example, as the demand for oxygen increases during physical activity, breathing patterns change and spinal stability concedes in order for the body to meet the need for air. We see this all the time when people are exhausted but continue to perform movements or exercises with bad form. The opposite also holds true, as it is very common to find aberrant breathing patterns (e.g. shortness of breath) in people with neck and back pain. Short, rapid breathing can put the body into the “fight or flight” response – an acute reaction to stress. The ability to take slow, deep breaths improves blood flow and returns the body to a calm state.
Renowned authority on manual medicine Dr. Karel Lewit once said, “If breathing is not normalized, no other movement pattern can be.”
Assessing breathing mechanics begins by determining whether you are a belly breather or a chest breather. Belly breathers typically demonstrate proper breathing by utilizing the diaphragm and other breathing muscles appropriately. Chest breathers, on the other hand, demonstrate faulty breathing by over-relying on accessory (secondary) breathing muscles, such as the upper trapezius and neck scalene muscles. Over time, forward head posture, hypertonic (over-used) upper trapezius and levator scapulae muscles, shoulder impingement, neck stiffness and increased spinal kyphosis (increased mid-back curvature) can occur if the aberrant patterns aren’t addressed. We also pay close attention to the patient’s ability to activate the abdominals during the inhale AND exhale phases of breathing. This activation ensures proper intra-abdominal bracing during movements such as squatting. Other important assessments include rib and lung expansion, checking for symmetry, evaluating breathing rhythms and measuring oxygen saturation. These patterns can be assessed in a variety of positions, which help determine which activities may be contributing to the faulty breathing and/or pain.
At Integrated Health Solutions we believe wellness is the fullest expression of health, not just the absence of disease. Proper breathing techniques are the cornerstone of our rehabilitation process and we often will not progress a patient onto exercises until the breathing is functional and the intra-abdominal bracing present.
Content provided by Dr. Drew Hunt