breathing

Want to Improve Health and Performance? Just Breathe!

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What if I told you that you may be doing something 20,000 times a day that is compromising your sleep, recovery, performance and health?  In fact, if you are breathing improperly, that is exactly what you are doing. Breathing pattern disorders are common, but also relatively easy to fix.  Let’s review proper and improper breathing mechanics and give you some strategies to improve your breathing pattern.

Caution: If you are experiencing chest pains, breathlessness or dizziness, you should contact your doctor to rule out more serious causes of your breathing dysfunction.

Proper Breathing

In proper, or diaphragmatic, breathing, inhalation is initiated by the downward movement of the diaphragm and the outward movement of the abdomen and lower ribs.  The rib cage should expand in a 3D pattern top to bottom, back to front and side to side. Expiration should be effortless as the abdomen and lower ribs descend and the diaphragm moves back to its original domed position.

Chest and Neck Breathing

The most common breathing pattern disorder we see in the physical therapy clinic is neck or upper chest breathing.  This occurs when you use the accessory muscles of the neck and upper chest, rather than the diaphragm, to draw in air.  These muscles are not designed for a highly repetitive task and this pattern can lead not only to difficulty pulling in enough air for proper recovery or athletic performance, but also to problems such as neck pain, arm pain, back pain or headaches.  

Breathing Pattern Assessment

To assess your breathing pattern, lay on your back with one hand over your belly button and the other over your upper chest.  Take a deep breath in and see where you feel movement under your hands. You should feel your belly move into your bottom hand and very little movement in your top hand.  If you feel most of the movement in your top hand, then you are using a neck/upper chest breathing pattern. If you feel the muscles of your neck and jaw tighten during inhalation, this indicates that these accessory muscles are kicking in.

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Retrain Your Breathing

Retraining your breathing pattern is pretty straight forward. Return to the same position you were in to test your breathing pattern.  Fully exhale and, once all the air is out of your lungs, slowly count to four. As you draw your breath back in, you should feel your abdomen and lower ribs expand.  If this movement is difficult and you feel your neck and upper chest muscles kicking in, you can bend your knees up and place your hands behind your head. Next, practice this exercise while sitting or standing.  Hands can be placed behind your back to relax the neck and upper chest.

Try to take “breathing breaks” throughout the day and consciously work on your breathing pattern.  You will be amazed at how much better you feel physically and mentally when you breathe properly. Though breathing is something we often take for granted, improving this movement pattern can dramatically improve both your health and performance.

If you have any questions or would like more information contact Greg at Complete Game Physical Therapy, 978-710-7204 or gcrossman@completegamept.com.