All day, every day, the one constant thing that we all do is to breathe. On average an adult breathes between 12 and 20 times per minute, but do we actually give it the importance that it deserves?
If you have been treated by me, there is a very high chance that at some point I have given you “breathing homework”. That is because unfortunately 9 out of 10 people breathe in an incorrect way: try to sit straight in the chair and take a nice deep breath. Chances are that when breathing in, you feel as if you are growing a bit taller and straighter, and when breathing out, you are sinking deeper in yourself. That is what we can call” vertical breathing” and unfortunately, this is not the correct way to breathe!
I can hear you say, why should I care as isn’t affecting me in any way? Well, breathing actually has a much bigger impact on our bodies than what we think, from getting oxygen into our bodies, to help with stress and a wide array of functions in-between. In the next few paragraphs, I will try to break down the effects of breathing, how to breathe correctly and of course how Osteopathy can help.
THE MECHANICS OF BREATHING
Before diving into the effects of breathing, it is useful to look at its mechanics. Simply put, we can identify 3 major components that together make us breath; lungs, ribs and diaphragm.
When we are inhaling, our chest needs to expand, so that a negative pressure is created in the lungs, and therefore air is dragged in. (We do know that low pressure areas tend to attract air from surrounding regions where the pressure is higher, same thing as in the weather). The diaphragm lowers and the ribs expand, dragging the lungs along.
As mentioned above, when we are inhaling our lungs are supposed to fill, but what happens if we are “breathing vertically”? When inhaling through vertical breathing, we are engaging a different set of muscles, called “accessory breathing muscles”, but not much of the diaphragm.
This means that the only part of the chest that will expand dragging the lungs with it is the top part; if you notice from the diagram below, the top area of the lungs is the smallest, hence we will only be filling a small percentage of them with air.
In order to provide our body with enough oxygen, we will need to take more breaths, to compensate for the lack OF “help” that the lower half of the lungs would provide. This change of pattern could make us feel as if we are not getting enough air and when we try to take a deep breath, we are quite constricted.
THE EFFECTS OF VERTICAL BREATHING
Accessory respiratory muscles are supposed to help us breathe together with the diaphragm, in order to provide “extra chest expansion” . For example, this happens when we are running, doing strenuous activity or when we are scared but this shouldn’t happen outside of these types of situations.
This means that if vertical breathing has become our primary respiration function, using these muscles thousands of times each day will most likely lead to an overload of the neck and shoulders.
BREATHING AND THE ABDOMINAL ORGANS
I have discussed how different ways of breathing use different areas of our lungs, but the reach of respiration is actually far greater. I have also mentioned how the diaphragm should be engaged when we are breathing well.
Apart from its function on the ribcage, the diaphragm plays a role on our digestive system as well as when engaged, it should tighten around a muscle ring that closes at the passage between the oesophagus (our food pipe) and the stomach. This function helps to stop the stomach content travelling back into the food pipe hence preventing Acid Reflux.
If you take a look at the following video, you will see how all of the abdominal organs (the lighter coloured mass in the video) are pushed down with each breath, as if being massaged by the diaphragm. What this means is that potentially the way we breathe and how our diaphragm functions could affect the bowel, renal, ovarian, liver and pelvic function.
BREATHING AND STRESS
As mentioned, accessory breathing is supposed to help us in situations where we need an extra kick, when doing strenuous activities etc. If we always use our accessory muscles, our nervous system will detect the use of the accessory breathing muscles and will start to think that we are in a state of stress.
If this happens, the fight or flight system will be activated, leading to a stress response. Our heart rate increases, we are more alert, the digestive system slows down and what this results in is we are conveying to our body that we are under stress. This will lead to ailments such as high blood pressure increasing the chances of cardiovascular diseases.
On the other hand, breathing is also a powerful tool to help us switch from the fight or flight nervous system to a restful and digest mode. It has been proven that if we breathe the correct way for 2 minutes prior to a job interview or an exam, we will perform much better!
SO HOW DO WE ACTUALLY BREATHE CORRECTLY?
It is time to get practical. Sit on the edge of your chair, straighten your back and take a deep breath. If you feel as if you’re growing taller when you’re breathing in, you are a vertical breather.
To switch to the correct diaphragmatic breathing:
Position a hand on your abdomen and one on your chest. When you breathe in, you should feel the hand on your abdomen rising, as if there was a balloon inside it that is getting full. The hand on the chest instead, is just a monitor. In fact, you shouldn’t feel much movement happening in your chest. Simply put, if we are breathing through the diaphragm, we have two options:
1) If we want to balance out the two nervous systems (fight or flight and rest and digest), we need to breathe in for as long as we breathe out.
2) If we want to calm down our nervous system before or during a stressful event, we need to breathe out for longer than we breathe in.
HOW CAN OSTEOPATHY HELP?
Osteopathic treatment can be of wonderful aid in retraining yourself to breathe better. There are various approaches that will help your diaphragm’s function through releasing tensions that might be holding it back. The diaphragm, in fact, behaves like any other muscle, and this means that it can be strained, tight or pulled.
A qualified Osteopath will also look at your ribs, your spine and your chest to make sure that all of the surrounding joints are moving freely, allowing your lungs to properly fill up, making sure that the structures around the diaphragm and the lungs are working effectively.