Many common aches and pains, particularly around the head, neck and shoulders, may be caused in part by inefficient breathing. Problems like chronic headaches, numb and tingling hands, neck pain, or upper back pain might actually be caused by a respiratory issue. The breathing exercises that might help are tedious and unappealing, but they are worthwhile regardless of whether or not they actually solve any painful problems.
This article will trace a series of unproven but plausible connections1 between respiratory dysfunction and a constellation of painful upper body conditions: from garden variety stiffness to seemingly unlikely and severe consequences such as rotator cuff injuries, whiplash, and thoracic outlet syndrome.
The connection between dysfunctional breathing and upper body pain
If it exists, the connection between dysfunctional breathing and pain is straightforward in principle: if the diaphragm doesn’t do its job well, muscles in the upper chest (pectoralis minor) and throat (sternocleidomastoid and scalenes) will try to help out.2 Unfortunately, these muscles aren’t built for routine respiration, and they get exhausted and tender (more on how this works below). If this occurs, it could trigger a cascade of uncomfortable consequences over time.
This scenario may be common. About three quarters of my massage therapy clients3 seemed to be trying to lift their rib cages with muscles in the upper chest and throat.4 Most were able to stop doing this on request, but only when they focused.
Some seemed unable to make the change at all, their scalene muscles obviously contracting with every breath, no matter how much they put their minds to it. I recall one client who seemed particularly incapable of breathing with her diaphragm; with each inhalation, she clenched her scalene muscle group so tightly that cords of muscle stood out in her neck, while her abdomen remained still. That just can’t be good! She was no more able to change it than I can wiggle my ears.
That’s the connection, in theory.
And why does it happen?
Why would we ask such unsuitable muscles to work too hard in the first place? Why would we ever breathe dysfunctionally?
Lots of reasons. Anything that makes breathing more difficult could provoke over-use of the scalenes and other accessory breathing muscles. Perhaps the best example is smoking: obvious, common, and preventable. (It’s also a risk-factor for chronic pain independently,5 so that’s a double whammy.) More examples ahead …
The hydraulics of respiration
Diaphragm diagram! The dome-shape is highlighted here by the bolder red line.
If you understand the principle of hydraulics, you can quickly grasp how breathing should work. The diaphragm is your primary breathing muscle. It is a thin, wide sheet of muscle that separates the rib cage from the abdomen. It has a high domed shape that flattens out significantly when it contracts. That dome-shape is much more pronounced than most people realize, and it’s important to understand.
When the diaphragm contracts, that dome flattens significantly, and as it flattens it pushes downwards on the viscera like a hydraulic plunger, like a piston in a cylinder. Since the watery viscera cannot be compressed,6 they have to get out of the way. So where do they go?
The hydraulics of respiration
The diaphragm flattens as it contracts, pushing the abdominal walls outwards.
They go outwards! The abdominal contents are forced down and out. When you inhale with your diaphragm, your belly expands. When your diaphragm moves, your belly must move — if it doesn’t move, you simply aren’t using your diaphragm.7 So good breathing is described as “belly breathing,” “abdominal breathing,” or “diaphragmatic breathing.”
The buddha’s belly
The way in which the belly sticks out during healthy inhalation can be seen in most statuary of the Buddha. Good breathing and a flexible pot belly are associated with enlightenment!
Okay, this buddha just looks overweight... but they almost all have pot bellies!
Enlightenment aside, good breathing is generally associated with vitality (as well as some other unusual phenomena8 ). Probably only the liveliest people are breathing well: effective athletes, martial artists, dancers and actors, and people who belly laugh a lot.
The rest of us — me included — struggle to maintain our respiration quality (and our vitality).
Eight reasons (to start) that people don’t breathe diaphragmatically
If breathing diaphragmatically was good enough for Buddha and is a key to vitality, why doesn’t everyone do it?
- Smoking, as mentioned above, along with any medical condition that makes breathing laboured. There are quite a few of those.
- Monkey see, monkey do — no one else breathes well, so we don’t. Shallow breathing is part of a pattern of postural and movement habits that we start imitating when we are infants.
- Most of us are too vain to be comfortable with sticking our gut out. Gut sucking-in is probably the most popular postural habit in the world, and of course that habit strengthens as we age.
- Breathing is emotionally stimulating and expressive,9 and many people avoid this as carefully as they steer clear of pot bellies.
- A life lived mostly in chairs — with the hips flexed to 90˚ and the belly compressed from below — makes diaphragmatic breathing a little bit mechanically difficult. (And, of course, excessive sitting is unhealthy in quite a few other ways.)
- Rather than a limitation of diaphragmatic breathing, the problem may be trying too hard to do it with the throat muscles: rat-racey stress tends to manifest in muscular tension high in the body: face, jaw, neck and shoulders.
- A churning, tense belly is another common feature of emotional stress.
- This is a big one: diaphragmatic weakness. Once this strength is lost, it’s difficult to regain. It is one thing to be out of the habit of breathing abdominally (at age ten, say) and quite another to have lost the diaphragmatic strength and coordination for it (by age twenty-two, for instance).
- It’s not like you can’t breathe without strong diaphragmatic contraction — it’s just more difficult. So perhaps the most insidious reason that people don’t breathe with their diaphragms is simply because they can. Most people would rather stick with an understated respiratory style rather than work harder. They can get away with it — for several years anyway — so they do.
The alternative: reverse breathing
What happens when you get out of the habit of using your most important respiratory muscle, and you habitually overuse the accessory respiratory muscles for two or three decades?
When people don’t breathe well, they tend to breathe in reverse: that is, the movement of their abdomen during respiration is the opposite of what is normal and healthy! Instead of letting the belly move outward during inhalation, they try to suck it in. And on exhalation, they relax the belly slightly. Of the next ten people you pass on the street, nine of them are probably breathing in reverse.
|Healthy Breathing||belly goes out||belly sucks in|
|Reverse Breathing||belly sucks in||belly goes out|
Even people who can breathe diaphragmatically when they go slowly will start to reverse breathe when they pick up the pace. Only after years of practice have I learned to breathe diaphragmatically at speed. It’s purely a matter of coordination, a pat-your-head/rub-your-tummy challenge!
Reverse breathing is not inherently bad, but it’s not a good idea to do it all the time. It’s hard to ventilate thoroughly if you are sucking in your belly while your diaphragm is trying to descend.
In fact, it’s so challenging to inhale while your belly is sucked in that it surprising that all those reverse breathers don’t black out more often. Shouldn’t the sidewalks be littered with dazed, gasping reverse breathers? How are they managing to get air at all, if not through contraction of the diaphragm?
The body is equipped with several emergency backup respiratory muscles. The diaphragm does not work alone. Any breath that uses extra muscle is considered to be forced respiration.
Normal, healthy, relaxed breathing doesn’t take much effort. Inhalation can be managed by the diaphragm alone, and exhalation takes no muscle contraction at all: the lungs collapse elastically, pushing air out effortlessly.
A sneeze or a cough, on the other hand, takes everything you’ve got: every fibre of muscle attached to your rib cage contracts violently. Yawning is not as heavy a recruiter, but is still much more intense than normal breathing. And, of course, you also use more breathing muscles when you exercise — depending on the intensity, this can range anywhere from just a little bit to quite a lot of extra breathing power.
Here are the muscles involved in respiration, and their roles in healthy breathing:
- Diaphragm — This is your most important breathing muscle — it always has to work, even in relaxed breathing.
- Intercostals — Tiny muscles between the ribs, recruited for slightly forced respiration.
- Abdominals — The abdominals pull the rib cage down and push the diaphragm up, so they are vital for strong exhalation.
- Quadratus Lumborum — “Quad” meaning “four-sided” and “lumb” as in “lumbar” — throw in some suffixes, and you’ve got some Latin.This is a low back muscle that pulls down hard on your bottom ribs. People sometimes tear it when they sneeze! It is recruited only for the strongest exhalations.
- Pectoralis Minor — The pectoralis minor muscles are tiny chest muscles that pull up on the rib cage. The rib cage is heavy: this is definitely an emergency breathing muscle only.
- Sternocleidomastoid — These prominent throat muscles form a distinctive V-shape. Like the pectoralis minors, they are rib cage lifters that should only be used when you absolutely, positively have to get something out of your trachea. I can breathe hard without ever feeling these muscles twitch!
- Scalenes — Weirdest (and most important) of all the respiratory helper muscles are the scalenes. I have written entire articles about them (see Related Reading at the bottom of this article). They descend from the sides of the neck and attach to the uppermost ribs — and sometimes even attach to the top of the lungs. Their primary job is to move necks, but they also get involved in rib cage lifting when the need is great.
Unfortunately, most people don’t use their diaphragms to breathe, so they have to use their emergency breathing muscles. It’s inefficient, so they have to work hard to take normal breaths, as if every moment was like a respiratory emergency! Does stress cause people to breathe poorly? Or does breathing poorly cause stress? It’s both, obviously: each pattern aggravates the other. What a pickle.
So, other than always breathing like you’re trying to run from lions, and giving your sternocleidowhatsis muscles a lot of exercise, what’s the big deal? What’s so bad about breathing with your chest and neck muscles?
Chronic upper chest and neck breathing presumably exhausts and then eventually damages the emergency breathing musculature, causing a list of bad news: exercise gets more difficult, and the risk of both acute and chronic injuries and painful conditions in the neck and shoulders increases dramatically — especially whiplash injuries.10
The importance of exercise should not be underestimated. Modern people suffer from a general plague of poor fitness — when “the burn” is much worse, because we can’t breathe properly, how much more difficult is it to start and maintain an exercise program?
The scalene muscles specifically may be unusually good at clenching too much. In fact, they are “uniquely structured in fiber composition to sustain prolonged contraction,”12 which could be adaptive and functional in some circumstances, excessive and dysfunctional in others.
Chronic overuse of the scalenes and other respiratory helpers may lead to their “injury” in the form of metabolically exhausted and painful patches of muscle tissue known as “trigger points.”13 This article leans heavily on this idea, and yet it’s questionable — some experts dispute the existence or nature of trigger points,14 and even if they do exist, no one actually knows if they are caused by chronic muscle overuse. It’s just a theory — a reasonable one, but just a theory. On the other hand, I also don’t have to invoke the idea of trigger points to explain why tired muscles might be a problem for the area.
Assuming that trigger points are a factor, their intensity can range from mild to crippling. “Sick” muscles like this feel rotten and don’t do their job well: the more you’ve worn out your neck and chest muscles trying to breathe without your diaphragm, the more likely you are to have a problematic upper body posture and lousy mechanics of the shoulder and spinal joints, which leads to yet more injuries.
Fatigue and/or trigger points and poor posture might cause and/or aggravate many other problems:
- A significant portion (probably more than half) of all upper back pain is caused by problems in the neck.15
- Shoulder tendinitises.
- Whiplash. The more exhausted your neck muscles, the more a whiplash injury is going to hurt, and the longer it’s going to take to heal — in many cases, people never really heal at all.
- Frozen shoulder, a condition in which the shoulder joint mysteriously seizes up. While it is a strange condition whose ultimate cause is not known, it seems likely to me that it is at least aggravated by respiratory and upper body postural dysfunction.
- “Cricks” in the neck, most of which are probably caused by small mechanical problems in the spine (known as minor intervertebral derangements, or MIDs16) that can cause days or weeks of painful protective spasms and months of stiffness.
- Ringing in the ears and other hearing and balance problems. Troubled sternocleidomastoid muscles are presumed by many massage therapists to interfere with hearing, balance, and to cause tinnitus (ringing) either directly or indirectly via effects on the muscles of the jaw.17
- Numbness and pain in the entire arm can be caused by a condition called thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS), in which nerves and blood vessels that supply the arm are impinged by two specific muscles — two muscles that also happen to be the most abused respiratory muscles — pectoralis minor and scalenes!18
That’s the tip of the iceberg, but it gives you a good sense of the complex interconnections and the potential for totally exhausted chest and neck muscles to wreak havoc on your upper body.
I’ve seen some people’s lives changed forever by some of these conditions — especially whiplash injuries that are effectively permanent, or people with TOS who are unable to lift their arms without excruciating pain or total numbness. In all such cases, the connection to respiratory dysfunction is surprisingly straightforward. Breathing matters!
To really understand this phenomenon, it’s necessary to go just a bit deeper into respiratory mechanics. This section is for the devoted reader who wants to understand exactly what’s going on when breathing goes wrong. It’s easy enough to understand that breathing without the benefit of diaphragmatic contraction is probably not such a good thing. But why, exactly, is it such a problem?
Exhalation without the aid of the diaphragm is no big deal — even strong exhalation. The diaphragm simply isn’t used for that in the first place. The muscles that pull the rib cage down are aided by gravity: those ribs are heavy, and it doesn’t take much to pull them down a little more. And the muscles we use for the job are quite large and strong: the abdominals and the quadratus lumborum are large, each of them bigger than any of the muscles used to assist inhalation. And, furthermore, we don’t really have any psychological inhibitions against contracting our abdominal muscles — it’s the relaxed belly we shy away from.
It’s inhaling without the diaphragm that is so difficult. Without the diaphragm, inhalation is extremely hard work: somehow or other, you’re going to have to get that rib cage lifted up against the pull of gravity, and against the pull of abdominal and back muscles that don’t like to relax.
The only muscles that are really designed for serious rib-lifting are the intercostals, and they can only do so much. So people end up recruiting the pectoralis minors, sternocleidomastoids, and (worst of all) the scalenes. And even that is not, in itself, necessarily a bad thing: the trouble is when you do it all the time, for ordinary breathing. Imagine a handful of muscles the size of pencils trying to lift your rib cage several times per minute.
All day long, every day.
That is the ultimate and specific problem with not using your diaphragm.
So now what?
What are the solutions to dysfunctional breathing? (If the problem is even real)
People mostly aren’t interested in breathing better — they are interested in fixing pain, of course. But one thing at a time: can you breathe better? Less dysfunctionally?
Probably. To stop breathing with your chest and throat muscles, you must have the strength and coordination to breathe well with your diaphragm. It can be done both directly with diaphragm exercises, or indirectly by practicing activities that demand good diaphragmatic function.
Studies have shown that exercising your respiratory musculature directly is effective,19 but also that it probably can’t be done half-heartedly: some intensity and dedication may be necessary to get anywhere with it.2021
Another approach is a breathing technique used by swimmers: controlled frequency breathing (CFB) is a common involves holding the breath for about 7 to 10 strokes (feels like a long time when you’re working hard). A 2016 test of CFB in competitive college swimmers showed that they were way more resistant to fatigue of the muscles of inspiration22 — which is potentially exactly what we want. (Note that CFB had no other effect on performance, e.g. aerobic capacity.) Obviously you don’t have to swim to work with this idea: essentially any rhymic breath holding during exercise probably works the same way.
The diaphragm is a muscle you can’t see and can’t feel directly. It’s like trying to learn how to wiggle your ears. A lifetime of bad habits may stand in your way. Above all, you will doubt that it is really necessary — it’s an awful lot of trouble for a muscle you barely knew you had. But it’s the only way.
Take heart, though: it’s no different than what any singer or martial artist or swimmer learns. It’s difficult, but hardly impossible. The following sections offer several useful perspectives and strategies that can serve you well.
And will any of that help the pain?
It was a “probably” for learning to breathe better, but it’s just a big fat “maybe” when it comes to actually treating pain. Consider thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS), a controversial and ambiguous condition with a variety of possible causes: it’s plausible that respiratory dysfunction is one factor in thoracic outlet syndrome, perhaps even a big one, but it is hardly a sure thing. A stubborn case of TOS (or anything) could be just as resistent to respiratory training as any other therapy. Respiratory dysfunction might simply be another symptom of TOS, not a cause — in that case, learning to breathe better might help you cope with one of the effects of TOS, but never come anywhere close to curing it.
It’s a gamble, but it’s a gamble where you win something either way: learning to breathe better is undoubtedly inherently valuable, even if it doesn’t touch the pain.
Solution Idea No. 1: Strength is coordination
When people start a weight training program, it takes weeks for the first obvious increases in strength to manifest. These initial gains are not due to an increase in muscle mass — that comes later. The increase comes from coordination alone.
Specifically, a beginner learns to “recruit” more muscle fibres.23 Recruiting a lot of motor units at once takes coordination, a physical skill that can only be learned with practice, practice, practice. It’s true for your biceps, and it’s true for your diaphragm. Learning to breathe with your diaphragm is mainly about learning how to recruit more of its motor units every time you inhale.
It’s important to understand this, so that you realize that your goal is not exactly a big, beefy diaphragm, but simply one that you have a good neurological relationship with. You mostly just want to learn how to use what you’ve got. But how do you do that when you can’t even feel it?
Solution Idea No. 2: Book lifting
Learning to breathe diaphragmatically really is like learning to raise one eyebrow or wiggle your ears — only worse, because it’s difficult to even tell when you’ve succeeded. To learn to use your diaphragm, you have to make the results visible. Here’s how:
Find yourself a good, heavy book. This book should pass the “thunk test” — it should make a good, satisfying thunk when you drop it on the ground.
Lie down on your back with your knees up.
Place the book square on your belly.
Take a deep breath.
If the whole book lifts up, you used your diaphragm. If it didn’t lift up, or lifts unevenly, you didn’t use your diaphragm. Laws of hydraulics. It is absolutely impossible to contract your diaphragm without your belly sticking out.
So there you go: visual feedback is how you’re going to learn when you are actually contracting your diaphragm. Now, do that at least twenty times in a row, and your diaphragm isn’t strong unless you can lift it at least three centimetres every time. Six would be better.
Solution Idea No. 3: Water breathing
Standing up to your chin in a swimming pool is an even more ingenious way of providing resistance to diaphragmatic contraction. Can you see why?
Strength training is usually called “resistance” training by professionals, because “weight” training is too narrow a term. Weights such as barbells and stacks of iron plates in a machine are only one way of providing resistance to muscle contraction. It is also possible to use big elastic bands, springs, body weight, other muscles, and even just stationary objects. And water …
The physics of water breathing
Water pressure resists expansion of the abdomen uniformly on all sides — & therefore it resists diaphragm contraction.
Water pressure is strong: even just a couple of feet under water, the pressure on just 1 square centimetre is an amazing 2.2 kilograms — less closer to your chest, and more closer to your waist. That’s a lot of resistance to abdominal expansion! And it’s perfectly uniform.
Anything that resists abdominal expansion is resisting diaphragmatic contraction, of course. Lifting the book, as described above, obviously resists abdominal expansion: but not much, and only in one direction, and somewhat awkwardly. That exercise is really intended for the visual feedback, not the resistance.
Breathing while standing in water, however, requires the diaphragm to overcome a strong, unrelenting water pressure evenly distributed over the abdomen. It’s like wearing a broad, elastic garter belt. It’s a phenomenal strength (resistance) training exercise for the diaphragm.
In fact, it’s so difficult that most beginners will hardly be able to budge their diaphragm, and will — uh oh! — end up trying to lift their rib cage instead. It’s actually a great way to demonstrate how the chest and neck muscles tend to get recruited when the diaphragm isn’t being used, or can’t be used — you can really feel all those secondary muscles kicking in and trying to take over!
So do experiment with this in the early stages, just so you can see what it feels like, but don’t try to use it as a strength-building exercise until you’ve mastered book lifting. Happy water breathing!
Solution Idea No. 3+: Upping the water breathing ante with a snorkel or breathing tube!
Simply deep breathing while submerged to your chin is a simple way to challenge your respiratory musculature. The exercise challenge can be made much more acute — with surprising physics on display — if you add a breathing tube to the equation and sink just a little further into the water.
It’s super difficult to breathe through a narrow (¼ to ½-inch) tube while submerged, and the hardship spikes impressively with every inch of depth. Unless you stop it, the small diameter of the tube becomes the sole pressure outlet for the weight of all that water. Air whooshes out of your lungs and through the tube, if you don’t stop it. Put your tongue over the tube end, and you will notice a formidable suction. When you try to inhale through that tube, you have to first match the suction and then exceed it to get any air! It becomes well nigh impossible as you descend.
This pressure differential happens with a snorkel too, and snorkelling would be good respiratory exercise in itself, but there are two differences that make all the difference:
- you’re floating horizontally and therefore much shallower
- the tube is a fairly large diameter
So both sides of the pressure equation are smaller, resulting in a much more modest force to overcome.
Vintage drawing of a diving suit, representing the pressures & respiratory challenges involved in being underwater.
The breathing tube physics described above were a matter of life and death in early diving suits — the old-timey kind with a big metal helmet and a long breathing tube to the surface. The same physics were at work, but at hyperbolic extremes, due to the depth. The tube had to be pressurized from the surface to match the water pressure. If it wasn’t, something really horrible happened. Not only was the diver crushed, but — if the depth was great enough — he would literally be sucked into the helmet and tube, reduced to a paste of meat and bone chips.
For realsies.24 That’s the power of water pressure multiplied both by area and depth! Pressure math is spooky.
Solution Idea No. 4: Round breathing
Everyone’s emotionally constipated, unless you’re a sociopath or still in diapers. The price of maturity is that you repress much of your Genuine Self, and end up with a comfort zone that is suffocatingly narrow, respiratory dysfunction, and upper body pain. Ain’t life grand? Who knew neck pain could open such a can of worms?
So, shallow breath and emotional constipation usually go together, and so they should be fixed together. Oddly enough, the best cure for shallow breathing is … deeper breathing. Rocket science.
Specifically, I recommend “round breathing.”25 In a nutshell, round breathing is fast, deep, continuous breathing that is hyperventilatory and gets you all dizzy and emotionally raw. What fun! You don’t have to be able to breathe diaphragmatically to do it: the point is that it breaks down the emotional rigidity that makes it hard to breathe diaphragmatically in the first place.
If this sounds dreadful, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. Round breathing is the closest thing I know of to a fountain of youth (except maybe “exercise”). Human beings are amazingly uptight critters. We get hung up on a whole lot of stuff, and this is the single best way to loosen up that I know of.
There are at least three other major articles on this website on this subject, and they are listed at the end of this one.
Solution Idea No. 5: The abdominal lift
This exercise is straightforward and is vital for mastering many breathing techniques. It has several benefits: in addition to strongly stimulating diaphragmatic breathing, this ancient yoga exercise will also …
- exercise your "other" abdominal muscles (the obliques and transversus abdominis, which are often neglected even by professional trainers, even though they are very much relevant to core stability and belly shape).
- wake you up in the morning by mobilizing the significant amount of blood that is "stored" in your viscera over night.
- make "round breathing" much easier (see above).
- strengthen your pelvic floor muscles, touted as an essential component of sexual prowess for women and men! Also helpful in the prevention of bowel and urinary dysfunction.
And a host of other minor benefits. In all my years of experimenting with qigong, taijiquan, martial arts, yoga and other physical disciplines, this exercise still offers more bang-for-buck than any other single exercise. It’s what I call a “lifer,” best done once a day for the rest of your life.
Here are the instructions:
- Stand with your upper body supported on your knees.
- Take at least three deep breaths to prepare yourself.
- When you feel you have oxygenated sufficiently, blow all of your air out, hold your breath, and then suck your belly in hard against your spine. Particularly focus on your low belly, below the navel.
- Hold the position and your breath for several seconds (go as long as you can).
- Relax the belly before breathing again (if you try to breath first and then relax, it can hurt a bit).
- Repeat at least three times, or until you are exhausted.
Solution Idea No. 6: Stay out of chairs
My father always told me to stay out of bars, advice which has served me well, I think. I wish he had also told me to stay out of chairs — they are just as corrupting and dangerous!
This is not easy advice to follow, of course, but it is good advice nevertheless. Chronic sitting is an obvious mechanical barrier to diaphragmatic breathing: the belly is compressed, and cannot expand as easily or as far.
And, of course, if you’re in a chair … you’re not getting any exercise, are you? (Says the guy who has spent thousands of hours in a chair creating this website. Do as I say, not as I do!) If you can’t avoid working in chairs, do everything you can to mitigate the harmful effects. Above all, take micro-breaks!
Solution Idea No. 7: Stress reduction
“Reduce your stress level” is the most vague and unhelpful advice I can imagine. It’s a huge topic, addressed thoroughly in some other articles:
- Anxiety & Chronic Pain — A self-help guide for people who worry and hurt
- The Tyranny of Yoga, Meditation, and Mindfulness — Do you really need to try them? How much do they matter for recovery from conditions like low back pain?
- Why Do We Get Sick? — The curious and tangled connections between pain, poor health, and the lives we lead
- The Insomnia Guide — Serious insomnia-fighting advice from a veteran of the sleep wars (insomnia is, of course, almost always a major factor in stress)
For the purposes of this article, I just want to instill in you some respect for the consequences of stress: if you are so stressed out that you can’t breathe properly, what else is stress doing to you? It’s time to take a serious look solving some problems in your life, and/or changing the way you react to challenges — for the sake of your health.
Is there a particular kind of therapist or health professional who can help with this?
There is such a thing as a respiratory therapist. They primarily work with people who have respiratory diseases (such as asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, and the respiratory components of things like heart attacks and stroke), and might be difficult to access and a bit puzzled by a patient seeking help for a less obvious respiratory problem. If you’re interested in improving the strength of your breathing, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to inquire, but you might find it to be a bit of a dead end.
Any physical therapist or physiatrist might have some ideas about the respiration connection, but many would not — they would either have no particular knowledge of it, or they would dismiss it as a consideration because they disagree with my hypothesis, or because they know something about your case that eliminates it as a consideration.
In short, there isn’t really any particular sort of professional who can assist, though the idea will be of interest to many.
Treatment approaches in summary
We are a society of shallow breathers: afraid of moving our bellies, afraid of expressing ourselves, living our lives in chairs, and stressed out by our busy minds. Instead of breathing with the diaphragm, people tend to breathe with upper body musculature that is inadequate to the task, with a cascade of musculoskeletal consequences and vulnerabilities. These are the solutions to dysfunctional breathing:
- the book lifting exercise, to learn how to recruit the diaphragm
- water breathing, to increase your diaphragmatic strength and coordination
- controlled frequency breathing (with or without the swimming), to increase inspiratory muscle strength
- the abdominal lift exercise, to strengthen and stimulate the abdominal musculature and increase your body awareness of abdominal movement during breathing
- stay out of chairs as much as possible, so that your diaphragm actually has room to do its job
- embark on a program of stress and anxiety reduction, whatever that means to you
- “round” breathing, to break down the emotional rigidity that makes it so hard to breathe diaphragmatically in the first place
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About Paul Ingraham
I am a science writer in Vancouver, Canada. I was a Registered Massage Therapist for a decade and the assistant editor of ScienceBasedMedicine.org for several years. I’ve had many injuries as a runner and ultimate player, and I’ve been a chronic pain patient myself since 2015. Full bio. See you on Facebook or Twitter.
- Other breathing articles …
- I have a vast tutorial about trigger points that begins by explaining how exhausted muscle tissue might become a problem.
- The scalene muscle group, so important in respiratory dysfunction, is featured in its own article on this site, in the "Perfect Spot" series: Massage Therapy for Neck Pain, Chest Pain, Arm Pain, and Upper Back Pain — Perfect Spot No. 4, an area of common trigger points in the odd scalene muscle group in the neck
- Does Posture Matter? — A detailed guide to posture and postural correction strategies (especially why none of it matters very much)
- Pain Relief from Personal Growth — Treating tough pain problems with the pursuit of emotional intelligence, life balance, and peacefulness
Appendix: A reader story
Jeff N. of Atlanta, Georgia, sent me this story about his respiration connection:
I read this article a few years ago as I looked for reasons for severe neck pain that I was suffering with. It made sense, as my scalenes were extremely tight and my first rib was fixed in an elevated position. After reading the article, I tried to alter my breathing, which had been shallow, usually from my mouth. This went on for a few weeks, but didn’t get anywhere and gave up.
Fast forward to last year: My daughter had some breathing issues as a baby and learned poor breathing habits (shallow manner and through her mouth, like me). That’s when the light went on again for me. I started working on my breathing again, concentrating on breathing through my nose and using my diaphragm. A year later, I’m about 85% better. Another year and I think I’ll have total resolution.
The reason I’m emailing you is because you say that the connection between respiration and pain is theory. I’m here to tell you that it is not. I’ve spent thousands of dollars and considered surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome (which I’m sure would have done me no good in the long run). It’s disappointing that not one of the healthcare professionals that I saw over the years even suggested that breathing might be a factor. Now, after 10 years of excruciating pain, I’m almost healed. I hope my story will offer some hope to others.
What’s new in this article?
Seven updates have been logged for this article since publication (2005). All PainScience.com updates are logged to show a long term commitment to quality, accuracy, and currency. more
When’s the last time you read a blog post and found a list of many changes made to that page since publication? Like good footnotes, this sets PainScience.com apart from other health websites and blogs. Although footnotes are more useful, the update logs are important. They are “fine print,” but more meaningful than most of the comments that most Internet pages waste pixels on.
I log any change to articles that might be of interest to a keen reader. Complete update logging of all noteworthy improvements to all articles started in 2016. Prior to that, I only logged major updates for the most popular and controversial articles.
See the What’s New? page for updates to all recent site updates.
Apr 28, 2021 — Proofreading and editorial polish: corrected about 16 minor errors.
2016 — More general revision, mostly organizing and clarifying treatment suggestions.
2016 — Added a paragraph and footnote about controlled frequency breathing.
2016 — More editing. Modernization of footnotes and citations. Added a drawing of a man beathing, and an anatomical diagram of the diaphragm.
2016 — More thorough editing of the introduction, and modernization of discussion of trigger points.
2015 — Some basic editing of the first half of the article, through “8 reasons.”
2015 — Upgraded “hydraulics” diagram.
The original version of this article was unmodified for a long, long time!
2005 — Publication.
- The existence of this problem and the solutions for it are theoretical — no better than an educated guess. The scientific evidence to support it is all indirect. The original version of this article was written in the early 2000s, when I was just starting out as a massage therapist, and years before I got serious about developing my research and critical thinking skills. Although I have updated and edited it since, I want to be completely clear that all of this is still totally speculative.
- Netter FM. Atlas of human anatomy. 2nd ed. Novartis; 1997. Plate 182. A particularly excellent diagram of this.
- I was a Registered Massage Therapist with a busy practice in Vancouver, Canada, from 2000–2010, RIP. After that, science journalism and this website took over my career and they remain my sole focus today. See my bio.
- And my sample was surely skewed. People seeking massage therapy are obviously quite likely to be experiencing some kind of difficulty with their body.
- Ingraham. Smoking and Chronic Pain: We often underestimate the power of (tobacco) smoking to make things hurt more and longer. ❐ PainScience.com. 1348 words.
- For those who may not be familiar with heavy mechanics, the operating principle of hydraulics is that fluids cannot be compressed (actually, they can be compressed — just not very much, a lot less than gases). No matter how much force you apply to it, it fills pretty much the same volume. Its constituent molecules cannot be crammed significantly closer together than they already are. The contents of the abdomen, the guts, are extremely watery. If you press down on them with the descending diaphragm, they don’t get smaller — they have to have somewhere to move.
- Calais-Germaine B. Anatomy of movement. Eastland Press; 1993. pp88-9. The details of diaphragmatic movement are described and diagrammed with great skill in this widely respected and wonderfully readable text … which also reveals that my statement is not strictly true (although including the details in the body of the article would unnecessarily obscure the main point). It actually is possible to use the diaphragm without the abdomen expanding — sort of. If the centre of the diaphragm cannot descend due to abdominal muscle contraction, then it pulls on the lower ribs instead. In this case, diaphragmatic contraction causes slight flaring and lifting of the ribcage. However, it’s not a particularly efficient way to breathe, and it tends to involve recruitment of the upper chest muscles to assist in lifting the ribcage, which is exactly what most people need to avoid.
- For instance, the bulging eyes of Tibetan statuary are caused by something quite different, though still associated with something that evolved out of a spiritual breathing practice. The low-frequency sounds of Tibetan throat singing (which requires exceptional respiratory control) have some bizarre effects on bodily fluids, a standing wave phenomenon that causes eyeballs to swell and brains to hallucinate. Plate tectonics and space shuttle launches produce the same low frequencies, resulting in — get a load of this — disproportionately common reports of hauntings and demonic possession near fault lines and Cape Canaveral! Wow. (I wish I had a citation for this. All I can tell you is that I read an article about it long ago in a science magazine, and have remembered it ever since.)
- I’ve learned these lessons mainly from personal communication and training with Joanne Peterson, Jock McKeen, and Bennet Wong of The Haven Institute for Professional Training, as well as from their books, particularly The New Manual for Life (Wong, McKeen, 1998).
- Whiplash injuries routinely damage the tissues of the scalene muscle groups and sternocleidomastoid muscles, as outlined in detail in Management of Common Musculoskeletal Disorders, 3rd Edition (Hertling, Kessler, 1996: pp548-551). Both of these muscles are also exhausted by chronic over-use in respiratory dysfunction. It’s a bad combination.
- Machleder HI, Moll F, Verity MA. The anterior scalene muscle in thoracic outlet compression syndrome. Histochemical and morphometric studies. Arch Surg. 1986 Oct;121(10):1141–4. PubMed #3767646 ❐
- Mense S, Simons DG, Russell IJ. Muscle pain: understanding its nature, diagnosis and treatment. 1st hardcover ed. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2000.
- Ingraham. Trigger Points on Trial: A summary of the kerfuffle over Quintner et al., a key 2014 scientific paper criticizing the conventional wisdom about trigger points and myofascial pain syndrome. ❐ PainScience.com. 5316 words.
- Hertling D, Kessler R. Management of common musculoskeletal disorders. 3rd ed. Lippincott; 1996. p575.
- Maigne R. Manipulation of the spine. In Basmajian JV (ed): Manipulation, Traction and Massage, Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins. 1986. Darlene Hertling clearly elucidates Maigne’s ideas about MIDs (Hertling op. Cit., p574), with reference to the thoracic spine. Likely the idea can be sensibly applied to other sections of the spine as well.
- Travell J, Simons D, Simons L. Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction: The Trigger Point Manual. 2nd ed. Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins; 1999. p314. I’m not vouching for this theory, and it may well be wrong. Travell and Simons have been accused of excessive speculation about this sort of thing (see Travell, Simons and Cargo Cult Science).
- Magee DJ. Orthopedic physical assessment. WB Saunders Company; 1997. pp219-221. This text describes special orthopedic tests for determining which of the scalenes or pectoralis minor muscles may be impinging circulatory supply to the arm.
- Padula CA, Yeaw E. Inspiratory muscle training: integrative review. Research & Theory For Nursing Practice. 2006 Winter;20(4):291–304.
This review of the evidence indicates that exercising your breathing musculature probably works pretty darned well, and benefits take about “20 to 30 minutes per day for 10 to 12 weeks” to achieve. Better yet, the evidence also shows that it’s reasonable to expect some benefits “regardless of method”! In other words, there’s no great concern about which technique to use. Common protocols for respiratory training “are generally safe, feasible, and effective.”
- Enright SJ, Unnithan VB. Effect of Inspiratory Muscle Training Intensities on Pulmonary Function and Work Capacity in People Who Are Healthy: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Phys Ther. 2011 Jun;91(6):894–905. PubMed #21493747 ❐
Since we know that inspiratory muscle training can improve inspiratory muscle function, lung volume, lung capacity, and work capacity, what level of intensity will “do the trick”? This was a randomized and controlled trial — good science stuff — with three groups, each group training at a different level. The results suggest that high intensity is better than low intensity: “High-intensity IMT set at 80% of maximal effort resulted in increased MIP and SMIP, lung volumes, work capacity, and power output in individuals who were healthy, whereas IMT at 60% of maximal effort increased work capacity and power output only. Inspiratory muscle training intensities lower than 40% of maximal effort do not translate into quantitative functional outcomes.”
- Hill K, Gain KR, McKay SW, Nathan C, Gabbay E. Effects of High-Intensity Inspiratory Muscle Training Following a Near-Fatal Gunshot Wound. Phys Ther. 2011 Jul. PubMed #21737521 ❐
After a gunshot wound, a “high-intensity, interval-based threshold inspiratory muscle training (IMT) was undertaken” for the 38-year-old man. The treatment was found to be “safe and well tolerated. It was associated with improvements in maximum forced inspiratory flow and changed the locus of symptom limitation during high-intensity exercise from dyspnea to leg fatigue.”
- Burtch AR, Ogle BT, Sims PA, et al. Controlled Frequency Breathing Reduces Inspiratory Muscle Fatigue. J Strength Cond Res. 2016 Aug. PubMed #27537410 ❐ “CFB training appears to prevent inspiratory muscle fatigue yet no difference was found in performance outcomes.”
- Every muscle consists of millions or billions of microscopic fibres. Individual nerves stimulate clusters of fibres — together, nerve and fibres are called a “motor unit.” The more motor units you can stimulate at once, the stronger a contraction you can generate.
- The MythBusters quite reasonably wondered if such a thing is really possible. It is. And they demonstrated it. See MythBusters: A Helmet Full of Body. Tip: don’t eat first.
- Originally pioneered in a psychotherapeutic context in North America by Carl Jung, and then popularized by his student, Alexander Lowen, who called it “bioenergetic breathing.” It is also similar to what the Chinese call “round breathing,” which is my preferred label.