The act of breathing seldom receives much thought, unless there is a problem. Yet breathing in and out at an average rate of 12 cycles a minute is a life sustaining activity.
This activity is often at the center of meditation and relaxation practices because it is under both your conscious and unconscious control. You may improve your ability to breathe by understanding the interplay of the structure of your rib cage, your posture and lung function.
First, let’s look at the mechanics of breathing. The main muscle initiating an in-breath is called the respiratory diaphragm. You can locate it by placing your hand at the bottom of your breast bone (sternum) where the two sides of your rib cage form an upside down V. The diaphragm, which extends front to back and left and right, separates your body into an upper half (thoracic cavity) and lower half (abdominal cavity).
Each time you breathe in your respiratory diaphragm contracts and pulls downward, creating negative pressure in your lungs. Diaphragmatic breathing is sometimes referred to as belly breathing. As you breathe in, you should see your belly rise. As you breathe out, it should fall.
The other muscles involved in breathing are the intercostal muscles located between the ribs. These muscles allow the rib cage to lift up and out as you breathe in, and relax down and in as you breathe out. To check the different movements of your rib cage, first place your hand on your breastbone or sternum. As you breathe in, your chest should rise like a pump handle with the greatest excursion happening near your diaphragm. As you breathe out, the sternum should drop back down.
Now to check the so-called bucket handle motion of your lower rib cage, place your hands at the lower sides of your ribs with your fingers pointing horizontally toward the upside down V and forward by the rib cage under your sternum. As you breathe in, these lower ribs should flare out to the side. If you don’t feel much movement, gently squeeze the rib cage in as you breathe out and try to resist the ribs as you breathe in. Focus your breath in this lower area to see if you can feel movement. If this area is tight or sluggish, it may be affecting your ability to take a deep breath.
Many things affect our breathing. There are certainly many different lung problems, such as COPD (congestive obstructive pulmonary disease), emphysema and asthma and many other medical conditions that can make it difficult to breathe. Allergies to pets, smoke and strong perfumes can also affect breathing. Treatments for lung problems include medications, both in pill form and nebulizers (inhalers). These medications affect the internal workings of the air passage and lungs.
An often overlooked source of relief can come from manual physical therapy. For example, if your rib cage has become rigid and immobile, this will affect the amount of air exchange possible. The intercostal muscles may be in spasm, or may be fibrotic or the demifacet joints attaching the ribs to the vertebrae may be fixed, which limits the amount of excursion possible. Through lifting or twisting type injuries, the rib cage may be stuck in an inhalated pattern, which will reduce the overall ability to exchange air. Tightness and fatigue between the shoulder blades can often accompany this kind of situation.
Another sign that your back muscles may be involved in breathing difficulties occurs when you get a better breath when you push down with your hands against the arm rests or the surface you are sitting on. In this case, you are trying to counterbalance your rib cage by using the outside trunk stabilizers.
Posture can also affect your ability to breathe. If you have very rounded shoulders and a forward head, then the mobility of your sternum and rib cage will be reduced. Unless you learn to breathe deeply with your diaphragm, you will start to use your neck and shoulder muscles to assist with breathing. Watch to see how many people without lung problems tend to raise their shoulders when taking a deep breath. Most people are unaware that the diaphragm should actually be doing most of the work and that shoulders should remain still while you breathe.
Manual physical therapy can assist in improving posture by mobilizing the rib cage and improving diaphragm function through the use of gentle soft tissue techniques to increase mobility in these areas. The earlier those structural and muscular imbalances are detected, the more effective the treatment becomes.
So the next time you run up the stairs and feel winded for no apparent reason, check to see whether your rib cage or diaphragm is tight. Your body may be telling you something important.