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How well do you breathe?

Although breathing is something that most people don’t think twice about, HOW you breath can be an important underlying factor in neck, arm and lower back pains…

What is normal breathing?

A normal breathing pattern is driven by the diaphragm (the muscle that sits under your lungs).

With an ‘in’ breath the diaphragm should contract downwards, inflating the lungs. This filling of the lungs pushes the abdominal organs down leading to expansion of the abdomen.  This is called a ‘diaphragmatic’ or ‘abdominal’ pattern of breathing.

What is abnormal breathing?

The most common compensation for breathing at rest is chest breathing. Instead of the diaphragm expanding the lungs from below, the muscles of the neck and shoulders (such as the upper traps, scalenes and SCM) lift the ribcage up.


Neck Pain

Breathing in this fashion overloads the muscles and joints of the neck, which can predispose to neck pain, headache and arm pain. Below you can see the typical referral patterns for the muscles involved in this compensated breathing pattern:

Low back pain

As well as being a primary breathing muscle the diaphragm is also an important stabilizing muscle of the core. Dysfunction in the diaphragm can lead to weakness of the core, predisposing to or exacerbating low back pain.

How well do YOU breathe?

You can assess your basic breathing pattern quickly and easily with the following test:

  1. Sit or lay comfortably and breathe normally.
  2. Place one hand high on your chest and the other on your abdomen.
  3. Observe where your breathing takes place.

Are you expanding your belly as you breath in or are your chest and shoulders lifting and your neck tightening?

If you find it difficult to breathe without tensing or lifting your chest and shoulders ‘Rainbow Breathing’ is a simple but effective exercise that can help to reset the normal pattern of breathing.

To perform:

  • Start on all fours with your knees wider than your feet.
  • Slowly drop your hips back towards your heels as far as comfortable and let your shoulders and stomach relax.
  • It can help to think about dropping your stomach to the floor.
  • Next, take a relaxed breath in, expanding the stomach and sides of your ribs.
  • You should feel you stomach move into your thighs, but you shouldn’t feel your shoulders lifting. Breathe out, again focus on relaxing the stomach and shoulders.
  • Repeat this breathing cycle for 3-5 minutes, 3-5 times per day.  
  • Once mastered you can integrate this pattern into your daily postures and movements – sitting, driving, standing, and walking before progressing onto more advanced exercises.



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This post was written by Steffen Toates. Steffen is a chiropractor at Dynamic Health Chiropractic in Jersey CI. For more information about Steffen click here.

One Response to How well do you breathe?

  1. […] When relaxed, the normal breathing pattern is for the stomach and lower ribs to expand (belly breath -see image). However, often in patients with neck pain this normal breathing pattern has been disturbed. Instead of the stomach and lower ribs expanding, the neck and shoulders muscles compensate to lift the chest straight up (chest breathing). This puts a lot of stress on the joints and muscles of the neck and is a common factor in headaches and neck pain. For full recovery from neck injuries it is therefore very important to retrain this pattern. A good starting point for this is the rainbow breathing exercise. Learn more here. […]

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