Dysfunctional breathing

One of the more common issues I see in my practice is poor breathing mechanics. It’s a pervasive problem which some say effects over 70% of the population. The most common form of faulty breath mechanics is mild overbreathing.

In mild overbreathing, individuals tend to breath from the chest too much and from the abdomen too little. To understand why that’s bad, it helps to understand a little about how we breathe.

The lungs do not contract or relax to take in air. Inhalation is performed largely by the diaphragm which drops to create negative pressure which is equalized by air being pulled into the lungs. If the diaphragm isn’t allowed to make a full excursion, other muscles must attempt to compensate, such as the neck, shoulder and rib muscles.

In addition to mechanical issues leading to overbreathing, there are hormonal factors as well. When we become stressed or anxious, our stress hormone levels increase, which in turn causes us to breath higher up in the torso; less in the belly, more in the chest. This type of breathing then, fittingly, further elevates stress hormone levels. It’s a vicious cycle. Symptoms of overbreathing include:

  • Increased sympathetic tone (elevated stress hormone levels)
  • High blood pressure
  • Insomia
  • Digestive problems (constipation/diarrhea)
  • Migraines
  • Decreased immune function
  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Anxiety
  • Muscle cramps
  • Decreased pain tolerance

That list doesn’t even include issues that can arise from the structural imbalances associated with overbreathing such as gastroesophageal reflux (acid reflux), chest/ribcage pain (front or back) and numbness/tingling/weakness/swelling of the arms or hands. I’ve even seen a stubborn case of IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) clear with breath work. A normal inhalation should begin in the belly and finish in the chest with no elevation of the shoulders. Roughly 2/3 of the inhalation duration should be belly, with the last 1/3 being belly and chest. The rib cage should be in neutral and expand easily laterally as well as well as front to back during inhalation. The pelvis should be in neutral as well for optimal creation of intra-abdominal pressure. Correction of faulty breath mechanics includes not only breathing exercises to develop good mechanics, but also additional stress management techniques and, of course, structural work to ensure the body is capable of optimal breathing.

Overbreathing is one of the most common and least obvious (to those suffering from it) problems around. If any of the above sounds familiar, call or email me. I’m here to help.

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