Analyze and Improve Your Breathing

Did you know that breathing properly is crucial to ideal health? 

What happens if you aren't breathing properly? 

  • Proper breathing helps you maintain spinal stability while improper breathing often leads to instability through the spine and pelvic floor. 
  • Improper breathing can lead to poor coordination and poor cardiovascular endurance.
  • Using accessory muscles to help with breathing can lead to problems with shoulder mechanics 
  • Faulty respiration mechanics can lead to recurrent back pain. 
  • Improper breathing can play a major role in chronic fatigue, anxiety, panic attacks, as well as many musculo-skeletal symptoms. 
Improper breathing is more common than correct breathing
In a pilot study of 96 people in 2003 that assessed breathing mechanics, only 25% of people were found to breath normally. 53% were chest breathers, 56% lacked normal movement of the lower rib cage, and 19% had deep clavicular grooves. When asked to take a deep breath, the number of chest breathers increased to 74%. (for you analytical minds out there, I know this adds up to more than 100%. It is possible and even common to have multiple faults). 
Why are we such poor breathers? 
If you watch a baby breathe, they pretty much universally breath perfectly. Over time, we spend many hours sitting in chairs, slumping forward at computers, or reclining in lazyboys watching TV. This change in position of our spine and rib cage causes us to find alternate ways to breathe. Additionally, many of us look at models in advertisements and strive for a "flat stomach". Normal breathing involves letting the belly go outward with each inspiration, and when we are constantly holding our stomachs tight (consciously or subconsciously) to make them appear flatter, it is impossible to breathe correctly. 

Check Your Breathing

Thy these steps in different positions: laying on your back, sitting up, standing, and even while doing an exercise such as a side plank. Some people breathe well in some positions, but struggle when they get into another position. 
1. Place one hand over your abdomen/stomach, and another over your rib cage. 
What do look for
  • During inspiration (breathing in) your abdomen should expand outward. 
  • During expiration, (breathing out) your abdomen should expand inward. 
  • Movement should start in the abdomen, and not in the chest (even with a deep breath)
  • Abdominal motion should be much more pronounced than rib/chest motion.
2. Now move one hand to each side of your body over your lower ribs and upper abdomen.
What to look for:
  • The abdomen should expand all the way around through the entire cylinder, not just the front of the abdomen moving outward. 
  •  As inspiration continues, the lower ribs should move outward in a horizontal plane. 
  • With you hands our your sides, the motion should seem equal on both sides
3. Are you breathing at an equal rhythm?
4. Brace your core as though I told you someone were going to "punch you in the stomach". Can you still take a deep breath with proper mechanics?

 What constitutes faulty breathing patterns?

1) A lifting up motion of the entire rib cage. 
2) Chest movements predominate over abdominal breathing.
3) No lateral (outward) movement of lower ribs.
4) Movement is paradoxical (abdomen moved IN with inhalation and OUT with exhalation).
5) Inability to maintain an abdominal brace and breath normally.
6) Shallow breathing with little or no motion through abdomen or rib cage.
7) Asymmetrical motion in abdomen or rib cage. 
8) An abrupt  rhythm or over effort is observed.
9) Inhalation and exhalation are rapid or uneven.
10) There is excess tension in the face, lips, jaw, tongue, or neck muscles.
11) Sighs or yawns are frequent. 
12) Mouth breathing. Breathing in and out should be through nose. (Mouth breathing can be added with more intense cardiovascular demands).

What to do if you are not breathing correctly?

As with anything, the first step in fixing a problem is to realize what you are doing wrong. Then learn to do it correctly, and practice until it becomes automatic. 
First focus on relaxing muscles of the neck and chest and keepting the chest still. Focus on your exhale and letting all of the air out while staying relaxed. Breathe with a low, slow, and steady rhythm to avoid deep breaths and sighs. Try to lengthen your exhalation so it is twice as long as inhalation.
Then, practice  breathing with one hand one ribs and one on abdomen to be sure you are getting proper abdominal activity without excess chest motion. Once you do this for several breaths, switch to the hands on your sides position so that you can tell that your abdomen and lower ribs are moving outward.
If you are trying to make changes in the way that you breathe, try to focus on your breathing technique at least once an hour. This could mean reminding yourself with a note for your desk at work, setting a timer, or thinking about it every time you do a certain activity (like stopping at a red light). 
As you practice breathing, sit up or lay on your back. Avoid slumped posture, tight clothes, and holding tension in your abdominals. Be mindful of signs of stress like sighing and raising shoulders. 
Keep in mind that most people who breathe improperly have been doing it for years. It will take time to fix this, so keep practicing and be patient. 
If you want more guidance, I'd be happy to help! Call our office at 630-448-0255, and I'd be happy to set up a consult to get you started and on your way to breathing better! 
- Dr. Jamie