Respiration and Pain

respiration and pain

Hans Weller, M.D., said that nearly every physical problem is accompanied by a disturbance in breathing, but which comes first? Andrew Weil, M.D, also agrees that improper breathing is a common cause of ill health. In this article, I’m going to explain the importance of normal pattern of respiration and how faulty breathing pattern can lead to pain especially in your neck and low back.

Firstly, it’s important to know that normal respiratory mechanics while breathing has a powerful role in the neuro-musculoskeletal system. Respiratory mechanics plays a vital role in both posture and spinal stabilization.

The primary muscles of respiration include the diaphragm, transverse abdominus, deep intrinsic muscles of the spine and intercostal muscles. All these muscles, in addition to respiration, serves a dual role in postural function as a core stabilizer. The accessory muscles include the SCM, scalenes, pectoralis minor, serratus anterior and the upper trapezius.

Ideally, the interaction between the key muscles of respiration must be functioning normally and most importantly, a normal motor program for respiration must be cortically set in the nervous system.

You will find that with a normal pattern of respiration that the deeper and more relaxed the breath, the lower in the abdomen it occurs (abdominal breathing). It is thought that the development of faulty respiration can be due to abnormal early development, cultural, sport, habitual reasons, protective pattern due to a pathology and/or a combination of the above.

Common primary respiratory faults can include any of the following:

  • Lifting thorax with accessory muscles
  • Paradoxical breathing (abdomen moves in with inhalation and out with exhalation)
  • Chest breathing predominates over abdominal
  • Lower rib cage does not widen
  • Inability to maintain an abdominal brace and breath normally

Some specific secondary faults that can lead to back pain comprise of:

  • Shallow breathing
  • Asymmetrical motion
  • Altered rhythm
  • Uneven duration of inhalation and exhalation
  • Frequent sighs or yawns

It is very common to find faulty respiration contributing to  low back dysfunction. The diaphragm, transverse abdomius, pelvic floor and deep intrinsic spinal muscles work together such that dysfunction in one affects the others and inevitably effects spinal stabilitization. For example, when the diaphragm is inhibited, normal rib motion is altered or lost, as is the ability of core muscles to stabilize the low back. Therefore, the diaphragm plays an important role in spinal stability and when its function is comprised, the spine is inevitably affected and vice versa.

It’s significant to note that the nervous system will select maintenance of respiration over spinal stability. An example of this would be if you were continually bending over, your back would become vulnerable of injury because of poor aerobic fitness. Even good abdominal strength without proper coordination between the abs and diaphragm will lead to spine instability during challenging aerobic activities. A good exercise to help train coordination between the diaphragm and abs is the side bridge.

Not going into too much detail, but it should now be obvious of how faulty respiration leads to or can contribute to low back pain, neck pain, mid-thoracic dysfunction and shoulder girdle dysfunction. However, there are many techniques that can be utilized to help improve your breathing and since breathing is a bodily function that we do both consciously and unconsciously, it’s relatively easy to break poor habits. The main rehabilitation strategies to do this include correction of underlying causative factors and then motor control training. As you learn to breathe correctly, it’ll become natural and automatic to you, helping to improve your overall health and decrease your pain.

Please call your Chiropractor at AHS on 9948 2826 or visit our clinic at 9/470 Sydney Rd in Balgowlah servicing the surrounding suburbs of Allambie, Balgowlah Heights, Seaforth, Fairlight and Manly on the Northern Beaches.