Written by: Caitlin Sargent
It goes without saying that the respiratory system is essential for life. However it also has an important interplay with musculoskeletal system and stress regulation. Poor breathing patterns can contribute to pain and dysfunction in a number of areas. Likewise, stress, pain and dysfunction can also contribute to poor breathing mechanics.
Normal breathing pattern
A normal breathing pattern sees the diaphragm and pelvic floor muscles lengthen and drop during inhalation. And naturally elevate and gently contract during exhalation. The movement of the diaphragm also encourages rib movement – the ribs gently lift and rotate outwards during a breathe in. As for all our muscles and joints, the body loves movement. So going through a well co-ordinated, full range of movement breath is great for our body. Taking these deep diaphragmatic breaths is usually not suitable or even necessary for the entire day. But we know our bodies love variability. So combining our normal breathing with occasionally slowing down to focus on our breath can work very nicely.
What about stress?
When we are stressed, we tend to increase our rate of breathing. This increased rate also results in shorter breaths and a higher heart rate. Which can further contribute to our stressed state! The in breath is associated with our sympathetic nervous system (think ‘fight or flight’). While the out breath is linked to our parasympathetic nervous system (think ‘rest and digest’). When we increase our breathing rate, we usually spend more time inhaling than exhaling. As a result we continue to encourage that “fight or flight” response. If we are in a prolonged state of stress (eg big project at work or ill family member), we may subconsciously find ourselves taking slightly shorter and/or quicker breaths. Over a period of time this can have implications as our muscles and joints don’t go through their usual full range. We might see this play a role in back pain, rib pain, neck pain or pelvic floor dysfunction.
What can I do?
To help decrease our stress and encourage our breathing muscles and joints to move through range, we can focus on deep, slow breathes that particularly emphasise the exhale. For example: try taking a breathe in through your nose. Focus on feeling the air enter your nose and travel down your throat and into your lungs and belly. Then as you slowly exhale, follow the air back up to your throat and out your nose. For more relaxation exercises, see Catherine’s blog here.
If you think your breathing pattern might be playing a role in your pain, give us a call to see how a holistic physio approach might be able to help you.