Author

Dr Katie Willy - Osteopath

Do you know what this big muscle is bang in the middle of your torso (see pic below)?

It’s your DIAPHRAGM.
Check out how big it is, and guess what, most of us are hardly using the thing. 

What’s the point really, breathing isn’t THAT important is it?

Hmmm. Why don’t we use our diaphragm?
When you use your diaphragm in breathing it flattens down to increase the capacity of your lungs.  Obviously if you increase lung expansion, it will allow you to breathe in a deeper and more efficient breath.  That’s good for ALL your tissues.  Fancy that, oxygen is good for all your tissues.

So what happens if we hardly use our diaphragm. 

Well instead of using this tailor-made breathing muscle, you start to use neck and chest muscles, little rib muscles as well, to increase your upper chest breathing capacity.  We call this accessory breathing.  Now accessory breathing has a genuine benefit, it is a back-up type system for people that have difficulty breathing

  • Asthmatic breathing
  • Emphysema
  • Bronchiectasis
  • Pneumonia
  • Upper respiratory infection

It’s an added effort to breathe this way BUT if you are short of breath you gotta get the air somehow.

And THEN there is the general population that resort to this breathing at some stage in their life, often in times of pressure or stress, make it a habit and never to re-visit their diaphragmatic breathing again. Are you one of these people?  Probably. 

We see it in clinic all the time. Do yourself a favour and try the straight-forward exercise we have for you below.

Symptoms of accessory breathing (could this be part of why you feel the following?):
  • Neck pain
  • Tight ribs
  • Difficulty taking a deep breath
  • Raising your chin up to take deep breath (sure-fire sign)
So what can you try?

Each night when you go to bed, dedicate a few minutes to learning how to restore the use of your diaphragm.
Lie in bed on your back with a hand on your lower abdomen and one on your breast-bone (sternum), and your knees bent with feet flat on the bed.

There a number of ways to focus what is commonly known as “belly-breathing”.  Some people find they feel a bit nauseous with belly-breathing, I have an idea of how you can work through it, I had to too.
So lying on your back, one hand on your belly and one hand on your breast-bone.  Concentrate on filling you belly with air.  If this make you feel a bit sickly then focus on filling the air into your back, into your lower ribs, feeling the lower hand rise and fall with your breath.

The hand on your breast-bone is NOT meant to move.  This hand is to give the feedback on accessory breathing.  If you find it moving then take it slow and work hard to focus the air moving lower down to your belly/back.
I recommend you do this for about 5 minutes before bed.  It may even send you off to sleep.  Enjoy the moment as use it as down-time for your whole body

REFERENCES:

  1. H Bradley, Dr J Esformes 2014 (Feb), ‘Breathing Pattern Disorders & Functional Movement’, Int J of Sports Phys Ther, 9(1): 28–39
  2. Pavel Kolar et al 2012, ‘Postural Function of the Diaphragm in Persons With and Without Chronic Low Back Pain’, J of Orthopaedic & Sports Phys Ther, vol 42, iss 4, P 352–362

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