Breathe your pain away.
You might be surprised to learn that the way in which you breathe is actually causing you pain. When it comes to breathing, there are two styles that are the most common—chest breathing and belly breathing. So… which is your default style?
If you’re like me, you answered, chest.
Because this is what we’re taught from a young age. Most of us can recall (and likely practice to this day) being taught to sit up straight, tighten our abdomens, and breath through a pronounced chest.
To visualize your diaphragm, picture the dome portion of a large mushroom. It’s positioned beneath your lungs, touching your breast bone, encircling your chest cavity, and connecting to the front of your spine. During a healthy inhale, your diaphragm is prompted to move down, pulling your lungs down with it, which expands the lung tissue and pulls oxygen into the lung cavity.
This is how we naturally breathe when we’re born. However, what I’ve just described isn’t a chest breath—it’s a belly breath. That’s right, the opposite of what we’re taught and how most of us breathe on a daily basis.
Healthy Vs. Unhealthy Breathing
Chest breathing is not just not ideal—it can actually contribute to pain in the body. When you breathe in this manner, your neck and chest muscles pull the upper part of your rib cage up, allowing air to be sucked into the lung cavity, but at a less efficient rate than belly breathing. The result—because these muscles are not designed to function this way—is that they become strained and fatigued, which leads to pain in your upper back and shoulders, as well as tension headaches.
Belly breathing also prevents lower back pain. In fact, researchers in the Czech Republic found that people who focus on belly breathing are up to 5 times more likely to not experience lower back pain. This is because as your diaphragm makes its way down, the abdominal muscles that surround it and touch your spine create a mild contraction (called an eccentric contraction). This creates pressure that’s directed toward the front of your spine, which counteracts the pressure directed toward the back of your spine. This balanced state prevents strain in your lower back, as well as herniated discs.
The 411 on Belly Breathing
No matter how long you’ve been a “chest breather” you can still turn over a new leaf and switch back to belly side of things with a little practice. When you’re first acclimating to this style of breathing, I’d recommend lying on your back with your knees bent slightly and your feet flat against the surface. Place one hand on your chest and one hand just below your belly button.
Begin breathing and take note of how much your chest moves vs how much your belly moves. If your chest is moving more, focus on breathing into your belly, and even try picturing your diaphragm moving downward while your belly expands. Make sure that you’re inhaling through your nose and tightening your stomach muscles as you exhale.
To take it a step further, place your fingertips on one side of your stomach above your pelvic bone and see if you can feel it move outward, and then repeat on the other side. Typically, this will be more difficult to feel than when you place your hand on the top of your stomach. If one side seems to expand further than the other, you might also notice that you experience more pain on this side of your back. Don’t be too concerned about an issue like this. You can work on correcting it simply by focusing on trying to expand that side more than the other each time you inhale.
Continue this exercise for 5-10 minutes daily. As you become more comfortable you can experiment with trying it while sitting (noting to keep straight posture), and eventually trying it standing. Don’t be discouraged if you find yourself reverting back your old chest breathing habits—particularly during times of stress or while you exercise.
With patient practice, healthy belly breathing will become your new norm and your back pain’s BFF.
I have been having shortness of breath lately and I don’t know why so I am very interested in breathing correctly. Would you give a little more info, please? If I focus on breathing as deeply as possible, is that correct? How long should each breath be from start to finish? Thanks!
Dear Amy: Shortness of breath can be symptomatic of a cardiovascular condition so please make sure you see a healthcare practitioner to rule this out, first and foremost. With regard to your particular question, we would recommend breathing in for four counts, holding it for two counts, and breathing out for four counts. A nice and easy rhythm is optimal.
Excellent article. I am a singer and vocal teacher and enjoy having my students lay on their backs on the floor. We place a book on their belly and they can see their diaphragm in action as they breathe.