Many common aches and pains, particularly around the head, neck and shoulders, may benefit from learning how to do diaphragmatic breathing exercises.
Breathing is unique in that it can happen automatically (such as when you are asleep) or can be completely conscious, such as holding your breath while underwater.
Control of breathing is an important component of yoga, pilates and meditation – in fact almost any stress relieving or relaxation program you can think of. But there are also important musculoskeletal implications that are relevant to people suffering from headaches, neck and shoulder problems.
When we are relaxed, the majority of our breathing is done by the proper functioning of the diaphragm.
When we exercise, we use many additional muscles, including those around the upper chest and neck, to help bring more air in to meet the requirements of our activity. The trouble is that when we are stressed (and not exercising) we may use this “fight or flight” breathing mechanism even when we are at rest.
Consider the implications for someone with a tight neck, who is using their neck muscles to help them breathe, even when they should be relaxed. As Physios, we are increasingly finding that clients in chronic pain are not using their diaphragm, but rather using their upper chest to breathe.
Take a moment to observe your resting breath. Take a deep breath. Where does the movement occur? Does it feel comfortable to take a deep breath and hold it?
If you feel you are simply using your upper chest to breathe – or if you just want to relax a little – try the following diaphragmatic breathing exercise
- Place one hand on your upper chest, and one hand on your abdomen and breathe in and out. Feel where the movement is taking place – is it more upper chest or belly breathing?
- Try to reduce or limit the movement of the upper hand by focussing on the rising and falling of the lower hand. Try to exaggerate the abdominal component. It may help to imagine you are pressing down with the top hand to limit upper chest movement.
- After directing the breathing to the abdomen, you may remove the upper hand and rest it by your side, continuing to feel the lower hand rise and fall.
- If the abdomen is continuing to rise and fall, place both hands by your side, and continue to use your own position sense to monitor your breathing.
- Use this as a “breathing re-set” at least once a day, but check in on your breathing regularly during the day.