09 Dec Breathing
Have you ever though about how you breath? Breathing? you may say. Why should we need to think about that? Shouldn’t it just happen?
You are right in thinking it should just happen, but how it happens has great relevance to your health over the long term. Poor breathing patterns may lead to, or contribute to many health issues including fatigue, headaches, anxiety, dizziness, neck and back pain, and even an upset gut or speech problem. In athletes it can result in a reduced ability to perform.
If you can picture a sleeping baby, they will be lying there with their tummy rising and falling. This is their diaphragm working to pump air in and out of their lungs. The diaphragm is a strong and economical muscle, which sits below your lungs. As it contracts your tummy gently rises and air(oxygen) gets drawn into the bottom of your lungs. As it relaxes, the recoil helps expel the used air (including carbon dioxide). For adults we do this between 10-12 breaths per minute. For children and babies, it is more often.
Rapid breathing (>14 breaths per minute), affects the amount of carbon dioxide in or body and thereby its pH. This can throw a number of chemicals out of balance in our body. Over time this can contribute to gut problems and change the underlying balance of our autonomic nervous system, leading to chronic stress and fatigue amongst other things.
There are several factors that may contribute to us changing our breathing pattern. One of the most obvious is lung conditions such as asthma or bronchitis. Difficulties in getting air into our lungs, or being short of breath due to poor functioning lungs, can result in an overuse of our accessory breathing muscles. These lie along the side of your neck and attach into the tops ribs. These muscles are useful for short term need, such as having to sprint, but they are not designed for long term use. When used long term they often become tense and thickened. They are also not economical like the diaphragm. This results in more oxygen needed just to breath, leaving less for all the other body functions. Broken noses and sinus infections can have similar outcomes
Stress can also lead to issues. Holding tension through your neck / shoulder region for long periods of time tends to cause an elevation of your shoulders and a restriction in your lower ribs. This leads to an upper chest breathing pattern, and possibly some of the symptoms mentioned above.
A less common cause is prolonged abdominal tension. In a culture of looking thin, females (more commonly) habitually hold their tummy in. This restricts the use of the diaphragm and relaxed breathing patterns, and forces the body to become reliant on upper chest breathing, with possible consequences in the longer term.
Correcting poor breathing patterns can be an important part of improving general health, as well as injury management. Recognition is the first stage. If you are not aware you are breathing incorrectly it is hard to change. A simple test is to lie down on your back with your knees bent up and your hands resting on your tummy. While lying there you should feel your hands gently and slowly rising and falling with each breath. If this is not happening, you can start by consciously making your tummy rise with each breath in and relax down as you breath out. You will often find over time that this will also relax you as it stimulates the parasympathetic(calming) nervous system. Doing it before going to bed may even help sleep issues.
At The Lakes Clinic we have physios with an interest in how breathing affects the body. Feel free to contact us for further advice.
Hamish Ashton – Senior Physiotherapist / Strength Coach