Do you breathe into your belly, or do you chest breathe? Have you ever thought about breathing? If I were a betting person, I’d bet most of the U.S. population are chest breathers. Well, so what? A big what. Did you know that not breathing into your belly, stopping the expansion of your rib cage at the chest, and sucking in your gut when you breathe can lead to a host of issues including feeling more stress (literally and figuratively) and neck, chest and lower back pain (LBP), to start? Sometimes this altered breathing takes on a reverse pattern, the OPPOSITE of what you want going on–your belly sucking in when you breathe in and expanding when you exhale.
It’s a bit of a catch-22, but being breath aware is a start. We live in a notoriously face-paced, stimulus overloaded, stressed out society and that stress is often manifested in habitual shallow breathing, which reinforces that stressed out feeling. A few things happen when the diaphragm isn’t fully engaged in belly breathing. One, the natural dynamic stabilizing relationship between the diaphragm and the lower back/spine is disrupted. Two, accessory muscles of breathing are recruited full-time (which is not what they signed up for and they will likely have something loud and naggy to say about that over time). Three, that whole cardio-respiratory dynamic involved in breathing and perfusing the tissues with fresh oxygen and a host of other priming the machine factors…it puts a damper on that. Don’t become The Tin Man of Oz. For more ideas surrounding this topic, please see The Respiration Connection by the astute researcher and author, Paul Ingraham. And Breathing Techniques: A Guide to the Science and Methods
Here’s another interesting article, Failed Back Surgery Syndrome Review and New Hypotheses, which sheds some light on the complicated, multi-factorial, and little understood phenomenon of chronic pain and the role of dysfunctional diaphragmatic breathing. This article has some useful concepts involving the diaphragm and lower back, whether or not you have had lower back spinal surgery. I would say sub-optimal diaphragm movement, as a contributing factor to chronic LBP, likely precedes most surgeries for LBP, rather than just complicating and perpetuating post surgical LBP.
One take home message from this–whether or not you’ve heard it before (and whether or not you have had or currently have lower back pain):
Breathe into your belly folks. Go ahead and push out that tummy. Be the Buddha.
If you’re not currently in the belly breathing habit, start with an awareness of this a few minutes per day. One good way to practice this is while lying in a nice warm bath, floating on your back in a swimming pool, or better yet, a hot springs, (my favorites in the Pacific Northwest in a future post) or for a splurge and mini-adventure of sorts, practice your belly breathing in an sensory deprivation tank. I’ll fill you in on my experience a few months ago at Float Seattle in another post.
And, for what it’s worth, I’m not a fan of surgery for chronic LBP in the vast majority of cases (which are rarely due to one thing and are often not actually structural, despite being frequently labeled as such) and see it as a last last-resort “solution.”
From the ‘Failed Back Surgery’ article:
“Conclusion: A component that is not even considered when trying to understand the causes that lead to FBSS is the dysfunction of the diaphragm muscle, such that texts in literature do not mention the subject. The diaphragm is involved in chronic lower back and sacroiliac pain and plays an important part in the management of pain perception. Its dysfunction due to positional alterations could be one of the major underlying causes of chronic pain in this patient population. This is because the diaphragm dysfunction would lead to alterations in the biomechanics of the lumbar spine, with less proprioceptive abilities, less movement of the vertebrae, and reduction of functional collaboration of tissues that are involved in the proper functioning of the lumbar area; or less stabilization, or it provides less stimulation of baroreceptors by the diaphragm and an alteration in the perception of pain. In conclusion, the diaphragm itself could be a source of pain, due to the change of its proprioceptors or irritation of the phrenic nerve and the vagus nerve. If scientific research were to prove that the diaphragm muscle plays an important role in FBSS, the therapeutic approach might provide an additional step toward improving the clinical condition and quality of life in this patient population.”