Now that the holidays are over it is time to take a deep breath! Although breathing is a natural body function that we take for granted, most of us do not breathe correctly or understand that we have the ability to control our breathing.  Optimal breathing is key to our overall health and wellness.

Normal deep breathing should go all the way to the belly or diaphragm and we should feel the expansion of the rib cage laterally and actually even in the back of the rib cage between the scapulae. The diaphragm is one of the body’s main muscles for breathing in addition to the intercostals (between the ribs) and the abdominals. The diaphragm’s ability to function efficiently relies on its relationship to the rib cage. It is attached to the back of the ribs spine and sternum (breast bone).  Interestingly the right hemisphere of the diaphragm is larger than the left and our lungs have 3 lobes on the right and only 2 on the left due to the location of the heart.  Therefore, breathing won’t always feel symmetrical between the left and right side of the body.

When we inhale the diaphragm will contract – expanding out and moving downward.  The external intercostal muscles also contract to pull the ribs upward and outward. This increases the space or volume in the rib cage which allows the air to enter the lungs. When we exhale the diaphragm relaxes and rises back up (re-domes) and the external oblique muscles relax allowing the rib cage to move downward and inward thus reducing the volume of the thoracic cavity and forcing air out of the body.

Why is normal healthy breathing so important?

  • The lungs allow the exchange of oxygen and CO2 between the air and blood and then the arteries carry the oxygen to the body and the muscles
  • Breathing well can be the key to sleeping well and feeling rested (thus many adults need breathing apparatus’ at night to increase their oxygen uptake)
  • Poor breathing patterns can cause shortness of breath which can lead to heart disease
  • Stabilizes blood pressure
  • Improves recovery following exercise
  • Improves concentration and memory
  • May aid in reducing stress and enhancing physiological functions

There are many different ways to breathe including conscious breathing (into the upper, middle and lower lobes), pranayama (inhalation, retention and exhale), altered nostril breathing, Buteyko breathing and of course diaphragmatic breathing. These are all different breathing methods to assist in mindful breathing.  Mindful or controlled breathing can be used as an exercise to strengthen muscles like the large diaphragm, intercostal and abdominal muscles and mobilize our rib cage.

To practice diaphragmatic breathing, you can lie on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor. Place one hand just above your navel on the abdomen and one hand on the sternum (breast bone). Inhale into your nose (this allows for warm cleaner air to enter the lungs).  You should feel the hand on the abdomen rise first and the hand on the sternum will rise minimally but the ribs will flair laterally. You should not feel you neck muscles engage. Now exhale out through your mouth and you should feel the hand on the abdomen go down and you should feel the rib cage drop.  You can gently contract the abdominal muscles on the exhale to assist the diaphragm to re-dome or rise and it is helpful to pause after the exhale to fully release all the air in the lungs. This enhances your ability to take a deep breath on your next inhalation.  You should breathe relaxed and rhythmically.

Poor breathing patterns and reduced rib cage mobility can contribute to physiological and structural problems including spinal (cervical, thoracic and lumbar) and shoulder pain and digestive issues just to mention a few. If you feel that your breathing isn’t optimal have your personal trainer assess your breathing during exercise or see a health care professional. So, give your attention to your breathing patterns and practice your diaphragmatic breathing. It’s good for your body and your mind!

We would like to thank Annette DuPont, PT at Pivot Physical Therapy for contributing this article for our newsletter. Since 2004 Annette has worked in the private outpatient clinic setting specializing in manual orthopedic therapy. She enjoys treating difficult spinal and extremity disorders and has taken extensive continuing education including completion of all courses offered through The Institute of Physical Art and the Postural Restoration Institute. She is Certified in Schroth Method for scoliosis therapy and in Vestibular Rehabilitation.

Many of our clients have had immense success with Annette’s and her co-therapists help. We thank them all for taking such good care of our clients. You can reach Annette and Pivot PT at 828-254-3525.