Breathing: Can it really help my bowel, my back and my circulation?

Breathing is more than just gas exchange

When you inhale and exhale the diaphragm stretches up and down which pulls air in and pushes air out, but it is also of vital importance to digestion, circulation, drainage, posture, and in our ‘flight or fright’ response 

This pumping action of the diaphragm on the internal organs has a massaging effect on the digestive system, aiding the comfortable passing of food, wind and bowel movement through the system.

This action also aids the venous and lymphatic return from the lower extremities thereby supporting circulation, and it is also part of our stress response, bringing oxygen quickly into the body when we are in ‘survival mode’. 

So you can see how important efficient breathing and a well functioning diaphragm is. 

Breathing or diaphragm dysfunction 

Poor breathing patterns may contribute to:

  • Reflux, indigestion, bloating and irritable bowel (did you ever think you could help your bowel by learning how to breath well?)
  • Poor circulation, varicosities and swelling
  • Stress, anxiety and panic attacks
  • Spinal pain, muscular tension and headaches

What is diaphragm dysfunction? 

What I notice when patients have poor breathing patterns is that they tend to ‘upper rib breathe’. This means the muscles around the shoulders and neck are recruited to lift the upper ribs to breathe in, and often the abdomen is pulled in too. Diaphragm or abdominal breathing is weak and inefficient.

The neck muscles are called the secondary muscles of respiration, ie. they are not the primary muscle; the diaphragm is. 

There’s the clue! 

These muscles are not designed to be used for relaxed, every-day breathing. Only during the ‘flight or fright’ response for when fast oxygen is needed. So when they are used regularly they become tight and sore and contribute to neck and shoulder tension patterns. 

How can I tell if I am an upper rib breather or an abdominal breather? 

Lie on your back with your knees bent up, and place one hand on your upper chest and one hand on your abdomen. Breath in a relaxed and natural manner. Notice which hand moves the most. If your upper hand is moving up and down more, or if during the day you notice you regularly sigh or try to catch your breath, you may be an ‘upper rib breather’. 

This way of breathing may have been acquired and ‘learnt’ over many years, and contributed to by poor posture, tension, pressure or anxiety. 

Learning good breathing techniques

It is simple to learn how to abdominal breath again, but it can take time to un-learn old habits and to make new ones. I have uploaded a self-help sheet on the downloads page on our website, so please take a look to see how you can begin by helping yourself. 

Osteopathy is great at improving diaphragm function, breathing patterns and reducing the related symptoms. You could reduce the need for antacids, pain-killers, laxatives and anti-spasmodics too, so do get in touch if you would like more help (but please don’t stop any medication without checking with your GP first).

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