Overcoming Neck and Back Pain Through Our Breath

Establishing proper movement patterns is the key to overcoming chronic pain.The breath is a foundational movement pattern that occurs over 20,000 times a day. It’s fascinating when you think about it (at least to us J). It’s the only movement that we can do voluntarily and involuntarily. Think about it, while breathing happens automatically, we also have the ability to control the rate, depth and frequency of our breath. Which is why establishing proper breathing technique is vital in improving overall movement patterning.

Today we discuss how our breath can contribute to neck and back pain and what we can do to prevent it.

Breathing (Diaphragm) Picture

Our diaphragm is the muscle primarily responsible for controlling our breath and breathing mechanics. It separates our chest cavity from our abdomen and has a lot of important structures that pass through it (arteries, veins, muscles, our esophagus. By training our breathing mechanics we can not only improve prevent pain and injury – we can create positive impacts on our digestive, cardiovascular, and musculoskeletal systems.

Breathing and Low Back Pain (Balloon Picture)

Intra-abdominal pressure (IAP) is defined as the pressure within the abdominal cavity. When it comes to low back pain – understanding how to create this pressure is extremely important in creating spinal ‘stiffness’ that protects the spine and reduces the risk of injury.

The best way to envision how intra-abdominal pressure creates stiffness to protect the low back is to think of a balloon. In this example your abdominal cavity is the balloon. A fully inflated balloon is stiff and allows little movement when pressed (creating stability). This protects anything inside the balloon (in this example your spine and intervertebral discs).  The less inflated a balloon the less stiffness and less stability, increasing the risk of injury. We can use this concept in our everyday lives when we go to lift something off the floor.

Breathing and Neck Pain

‘Chest Breathing’ is a common breathing mistake we see in the clinic. It’s common in people who work long hours at a desk, are dealing with a lot of stress, or are heavy smokers. It’s very easy to spot when people take a deep breath and their chest rises rather than their abdomen. Instead of utilizing their diaphragm for a full breath they start to use their neck musculature to ‘lift’ the rib cage

Here’s how it works: if the diaphragm isn’t doing its job well, muscles in the upper chest (pectoralis minor) and neck (sternocleidomastoid and scalenes) will try to help out with our breathing. These muscles aren’t meant to be used this frequently or in this way causing them to get exhausted and tender. This can lead to neck pain, headaches, and hand numbness/tingling. Another reason why we always need to start movement training with breathing mechanics.

 
 

Breathing and Stress Reduction

The breath is also fascinating as it is the only way we can influence our involuntary (autonomic) nervous system. Things like our heart rate and digestion are controlled by this portion of the nervous system. Slowing down these involuntary processes through breath can have both positive benefits for stress reduction. By slowing down or speeding up our breathing patterns, we have the ability to shift us more towards parasympathetic (relaxed) state or a more sympathetic (excited) state.

This ability to affect our autonomic nervous system affects all aspects of our physiology (including cardiovascular and digestive) and is another reason it’s important to learn how to control our breath.

How to Properly Perform Diaphragmatic (or Belly) Breathing

Belly Breathing is an easy exercise to practice and master.

  • ·Laying on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor

  • Place one hand on your belly and other hand on your chest.

  • Take a deep, slow (4 second) inhale through your nose. Our belly should rise before our chest (watch hands). Focus on expanding your belly in all directions (not just pushing your belly out).

  • Slowly exhale through the nose while allowing your belly to natural relax (not sucking in). Pay attention to the stiffness created in your abdomen on the inhale but pressing the abdomen with your finger.

We obviously can’t consciously pay attention to every breath we take. Which is why we want this to become automatic. Consistently and repeatedly practicing our breathing technique is the best way to ingrain this pattern and reap the benefits of better breathing.


Evolve Performance Healthcare helps active adults stay moving and strong so they can keep up their lifestyle and do what they love - without the use of pain pills, endless doctor visits, and unnecessary surgeries.

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