If you read the title and were confused, its possible that of all the things in the world to be bad at, you’re bad at breathing. Please don’t take it personally though, because I am too. And many of the patients that I’m seeing come in are as well. The fact is that sometimes when someone has low back pain, or rib pain, or many other types of issues.. breathing can always come in to play a role.
I had the opportunity to watch a colleague of mine work with a patient who came in having experienced chiropractic treatments all her life, complain of a rib out. If you’ve never experienced this before, it almost feels like a very sharp knife is pressed into your lungs with each deep breath. And even moving can become a difficult task when it’s really flared up. But through a competent exam, it was determined it wasn’t a rib being out that was the source of this patient’s discomfort.. it was poor breathing mechanics over a long period of time.
Ever since I was younger I have been a big fan of action movies. And at the end of any good scene in an action movie there was usually a ripped hero breathing heavy from the exertion of saving the day. In and out through his chest. It makes for a iconic shot, but it’s biomechanically wrong.
You see, when you’re breathing in and out through your chest, you’re using a bunch of supporting muscles to do a job they weren’t made for. The diaphragm is one big muscle, capable of expanding and relaxing the contents of the chest cavity with one great motion. Breathe in, Diaphragm expands. Breath out, Diaphragm relaxes. This is a smooth and even motion from side to side. But, when we chest breathe, we rely too much on our Intercostal muscles (the tiny muscles in between our ribs). This means we try to coordinate many smaller muscles to do the job of the one big Diaphragm. This can lead to uneven breathing from side to side, and a lot more effort required to keep this vital function moving.
A simple test you can do to see if you’re breathing properly is to lay down on your back. Place one hand over your sternum, and the other over your belly. When you take a deep breath in, see if you can control your chest movement, trying to limit it, and focus on belly movement to create the space and pressure needed to get air in. In other words, try not to let the hand on your chest rise and fall, but only the hand on your stomach.
If this is difficult for you to achieve, then this test becomes your exercise! A few times throughout the day for about 60 seconds, try to focus your breathing through your abdomen. You can do it for time, or for reps. But the more often you practice this, the better you’ll get at it, until it becomes automatic.