Although respiration is considered a basic and even rudimentary task, it is often a common pattern that needs to be corrected in many people. Though not often thought about, most of us understand that breathing is required to maintain life. Other than the magician David Blainehaps, we would cease to exist after only a matter of minutes without being able to breathe. After all, respiration is responsible for us to get oxygen into every cell in our bodies, and to excrete the waste by-product carbon dioxide. Unfortunately, most people are not breathing in a way that gives them optimum function of their bodies. In no way am I trying to imply that this dysfunction could be fatal. However, because respiratory mechanisms play a role in posture and spinal stabilization, this pattern can often be an overlooked cause of back or neck pain. Also, the reduced oxygenation through the body can amplify the cycle of stress, and anxiety, as well as compromising the performance of many bodily functions. To state this more eloquently, I'll use the words of Chaitow, Bradley, and Gilbert who state, “Nowhere in the body is the correlation of structure governing function more greater than in its relation to respiration”.
Before discussing how breathing properly can help relieve back and neck pain, let's review the basic processes involved with breathing. Near the bottom of the chest and rib cage, we have a dome-shaped muscle called the diaphragm. This is called the primary muscle of respiration, and is the main muscle that should be utilized for breathing. When the diaphragm is engaged, it flattens and moves down allowing air to enter into the lungs. Not as well known is that this muscle also has an important role in posture and core stability. This is important because it means that the spine is more susceptible to injury when respiration patterns are flawed. Faulty breathing patterns also cause muscles in the neck and back to overcompensate and become excessively tight. This leads to imbalances, pain, poor posture, and extremely, overall dysfunction. There are a variety of things that can interfere with proper respiration. Some of the more common causes that bring about the dysfunction are poor posture or ergonomics, trauma, pain, and even stress.
So, how exactly is this diaphragm muscle involved in core stability? Core stability is a big buzzword these days, yet you never hear anyone give the diaphragm its due attention. The truth is that the 'core' is the area of your body between your diaphragm and the lower portion of the pelvis and hips. It is your center of gravity, and has 29 muscles involved in its functioning. The core receives so much attention and is so important because it is the platform, or foundation from which all body movements occurs. In many people, especially those with chronic back or neck pain, it is the diaphragm muscle that is dysfunctional. The importance of the diaphragm is that it is part of the core called the inner unit, which provides the deepest level of stability. The training for this muscle is completely different from traditional core exercises. Continuing to use appropriate core-strengthening exercises will fail repeatedly until the diaphragm and inner unit are working properly. Improving respiratory patterns and the entire inner unit calls for training the brain to communicate more effectively to the appropriate muscles. This involves activities that focus on coordination, and becoming more in tune with your body, or cultivating mind / body awareness. This is because you can not strengthen a muscle that your brain is not using. Once successful rehabilitation of the diaphragm is achieved, many long-standing problems will naturally resolve.
Now that we've discussed the mechanical importance of rehabilitating our breathing, let us turn our attention to the many other wonderful benefits this practice contributes to our overall health. In the practices of yoga, tai chi, and meditation, breathing is by far the most important of all movement patterns. They even have terms such as Prana, and chi, to describe the vital life force of the breath. According to these philosophies correcting breathing is essential to unite mind, body, and spirit. With continuous practice comes optimal circulation of life force, as well as increased energy and ability for the body to heal. Current research shows that this type of breathing allows us to become more relaxed and improves our ability to manage stress. It is also now known that relaxation and stress reduction is extremely beneficial for improvement of the entire body, especially brain and immune system function. Ultimately, this task can be utilized as an added step in allowing you to achieve a better quality of life and to live life to your full potential.