Sensible advice for aches, pains & injuries

The Respiration Connection

How dysfunctional breathing might be a root cause of a variety of common upper body pain problems and injuries

by Paul Ingraham, Vancouver, Canadabio
I am a science writer, the Assistant Editor of, and a former Registered Massage Therapist with a decade of experience treating tough pain cases. I’ve written hundreds of articles and several books, and I’m known for readable but heavily referenced analysis, with a touch of sass. I am a runner and ultimate player. • more about memore about

Many common aches and pains, particularly around the head, neck and shoulders, may be caused in part by inefficient breathing. This can be a difficult problem to understand, let alone repair, and it is theoretical — no better than an educated guess. The scientific evidence to support it is circumstantial at best. Most people need some convincing before they believe that their chronic headaches, numb hands, or debilitating back pain might actually caused by a respiratory problem, and all the more so because the breathing exercises that will help are tedious and unappealing.

On the bright side, there are probably some benefits to respiratory strength training regardless of whether or not it solves any pain problems.

This article will trace a plausible series of steps connecting respiratory dysfunction to 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 take over.1 Unfortunately, these muscles aren’t built for routine respiration, and they exhaust and eventually injure themselves.2 If this occurs, it has a cascade of uncomfortable consequences over time.

If the diaphragm doesn’t do its job well, muscles in the upper chest (pectoralis minor) and throat (scalenes) will try to take over.

This scenario may be common. My “sample” was surely skewed, but about three quarters of my massage therapy clients seemed to be trying to lift their rib cages with muscles in the upper chest and throat. Most were able to stop doing this on request, when they put their mind to it, but only when focussing on it. Some seemed unable to make the change at all: their scalene muscles obviously contracted with every breath.

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. But what is “dysfunctional breathing,” and why do we ask such unsuitable muscles to work so hard in the first place?

All kinds of things! Anything that makes breathing more difficult could easily provoke over-use of the scalenes. Perhaps the best example is smoking: obvious, common, and preventable. It’s also risk-factor for chronic pain independently,3 so that’s a double whammy. More examples below…

The hydraulics of respiration

If you understand the principle of hydraulics, you can quickly grasp how breathing should work. When your diaphragm moves, your belly has to move — if it doesn’t move, you simply aren’t using your diaphragm.4

Diagram of the hydraulics of respiration. The diagram shows two simplified torsos, one for inhalation, the other for exhalation. The main difference between them is the shape of the diaphragm: a high dome during exhalation, and much lower and flatter during inhalation.

The hydraulics of respiration

The diaphragm flattens as it contracts, pushing the abdominal walls outwards.

Diagram of the hydraulics of respiration. The diagram shows two simplified torsos, one for inhalation, the other for exhalation. The main difference between them is the shape of the diaphragm: a high dome during exhalation, and much lower and flatter during inhalation.

The hydraulics of respiration

The diaphragm flattens as it contracts, pushing the abdominal walls outwards.

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 which flattens out significantly when it contracts. The dome-shape is much more pronounced that most people realize, and that shape is 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. Since the watery viscera cannot be compressed,5 they have to get out of the way. So where do they go?

They go outwards! The abdominal contents are forced down and out. When you inhale with your diaphragm, your belly expands. Hence, good breathing is described as “belly brathing,” “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!

Small photo of the Buddha, with a very prominent pot belly.

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 phenomena6 ). 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?

  1. Smoking, as mentioned above, along with any medical condition that makes breathing laboured. There are quite a few of those.
  2. Monkey see, monkey do — no 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.
  3. Most of us are too vain to be comfortable with sticking our gut out. Get sucking-in may is probably the most popular postural habit in the world, and of course that habit strengthens as we age.
  4. Breathing is emotionally stimulating and expressive,7 and many people avoid this as carefully as they steer clear of pot bellies.
  5. 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.)
  6. 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.
  7. A churning, tense belly is another common feature of emotional stress.
  8. 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).
  9. 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 versus “Reverse” Respiration
Inhalation Exhalation
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.

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!

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 side walks be littered with dazed, gasping reverse breathers? How are they managing to get air at all, if not through contraction of the diaphragm?

“Emergency” breathing

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:

(Note: I have removed some helpful anatomical drawings from this section because I did not own the rights to them. I eagerly look forward to hiring some artists to create some original illustrations. This is in the works for 2009 and 2010. Meanwhile, plain old text will just have to do!)

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?

The consequences

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.8

The importance of exercise should not be underestimated. Canadians 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 consequences of a sedentary lifestyle are far-reaching.9.

The risk of both acute and chronic injuries and painful conditions in the neck and shoulders increases dramatically

The increased risk of neck and shoulder injuries is easier to define, however, and I treat the symptoms of this disease in my practice every day. Exhausted muscles develop what I call “sick muscle syndrome” — they develop hard knots, technically known as myofascial trigger points, that radiate pain in characteristic patterns.10 The intensity of this phenomenon can range from mild to crippling, and it doesn’t just hurt: anything that lies in the path of that radiating pain is vulnerable, interfering with normal function in a variety of ways.

Sick muscles don’t do their own job very well, either: 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.

The combination of sick muscle syndrome and bad joint mechanics and posture cause and/or aggravate many problems:

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. Most people are suffering from these and many other consequences of inefficient respiration by — no kidding — about age twenty. In other words, most of the people who walk into my office are suffering from problems which can be traced, at least in part, to respiratory dysfunction.

I’ve seen 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!

Some clarifications

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.

Exhaling without the diaphragm is no big deal — it’s inhaling without the diaphragm that’s a challenge!

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.

For years.

That is the ultimate and specific problem with not using your diaphragm.

So now what?

The solutions

People never (ever) come to me and say, “Please, Mr. Massage Therapist, sir — please fix my breathing! It’s so dysfunctional!”

No, people come to me with whiplash, they come to me with back pain, they come to me with a terrible posture and ringing in their ears. So the first step is understanding that respiratory dysfunction is one of just a few major factors that are usually at the root of upper body pain, and stand in the way of healing from upper body injury.

Once you’re a believer, the solution is (drum roll please) … diaphragm exercise!

To stop breathing with your chest and throat muscles, you must learn how to breathe with your diaphragm. Absolutely, positively the only way to do this is to practice using your diaphragm. Research has shown that exercising your respiratory musculature is effective,16 but also that it probably can’t be done half-heartedly: some intensity and dedication may be necessary to get anywhere with it.1718

The solution is … diaphragm exercise!

But it’s a challenge! 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 has to learn. It’s difficult, but hardly impossible. The following sections offer several useful perspectives and strategies that can serve you well.

Can learning to breathe more strongly and efficiently actually “cure” anything? That’s a big fat “maybe.” Consider thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS), a controversial and ambiguous condition with a variety of possible causes. It’s certainly plausible that respiratory dysfunction is one factor in thoracic outlet syndrome, perhaps even a major factor, 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.

Fortunately, learning to breathe better is probably never going to hurt you, either.

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.

Diagram of a muscle motor unit

Specifically, a beginner learns to “recruit” more muscle fibres. 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.

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 a well-coordinated one — you 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 …

Complicated diagram of a torso submerged in water, showing how water exerts a pressure of 1 pound per square inch on all the surface area of the adomen, resisting inhalation.

The physics of water breathing

Water pressure resists expansion of the abdomen uniformly on all sides — and 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 indeed good respiratory exercise in itself, but there are two differences that make all the difference:

  1. you’re floating horizontally and therefore much shallower
  2. 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 and 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.19 That’s the power of water pressure multiplied both by area and depth! Pressure math is spooky.

Solution Idea No. 4: Bioenergetic or 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 often suffocating, respiratory dysfunction, and upper body pain. Ain’t life grand? Believe it or not, this is the can of worms people are opening when they come to my office with a stubborn case of whiplash!

So, shallow breath and emotional constipation usually go together, and they can only be fixed together. Oddly enough, the best cure for shallow breathing is … deeper breathing. Gee, this is rocket science, isn’t it?

Specifically, I recommend a breathing technique 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.

In a nutshell, round breathing is fast, deep, continuous breathing that is hyperventilatory and gets you all dizzy and emotionally vulnerable. 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 so hard to breathe diaphragmatically in the first place. That’s important. Read it three times!

Bioenergetic breathing breaks down the emotional rigidity that makes it so 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. 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 …

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:

  1. Stand with your upper body supported on your knees.
  2. Take at least three deep breaths to prepare yourself.
  3. 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.
  4. Hold the position and your breath for several seconds (go as long as you can).
  5. Relax the belly before breathing again (if you try to breath first and then relax, it can hurt a bit).
  6. 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 massage therapist who has spent thousands of hours in a chair creating this website. Do as I say, not as I do! Seriously, 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, and I can’t properly address it here. 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.

We are a society of shallow breathers

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.

Quick conclusion

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:

About Paul Ingraham

Headshot of Paul Ingraham, short hair, neat beard, suit jacket.

I am a science writer, former massage therapist, and assistant editor of I have had my share of injuries and pain challenges as a runner and ultimate player. My wife and I live in downtown Vancouver, Canada. See my full bio and qualifications, or my blog, Writerly. You might run into me on Facebook and Google, but mostly Twitter.

Further Reading

In the case of this article, “further reading” is pretty much the rest of the website. However, here are a few of the most relevant selections.

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.


  1. An excellent diagram of this can be found in the Atlas of Human Anatomy, 2nd Edition (Netter, 1997), plate 182. BACK TO TEXT
  2. Simons, David and Janet Travell. Travell & Simons' Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction: The Trigger Point Manual. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins, 1998. This text describes at length how exhaustion and injury of overused muscles occurs via the mechanism of myofascial pain syndrome. BACK TO TEXT
  3. PS Ingraham. Smoking and Chronic Pain: We often underestimate the power of (tobacco) smoking to make things hurt more and longer. 920 words. BACK TO TEXT
  4. Calais-Germaine, Blandine. Anatomy of Movement. Seattle: 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 might have obscured the 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 what most people need to avoid. BACK TO TEXT
  5. 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 simple 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. BACK TO TEXT
  6. 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 about five years ago in a science magazine, and have remembered it ever since.) BACK TO TEXT
  7. 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). It’s always interesting to review the assertions I make in my articles and asking how do I know this? In this case, I know it because Jock, Ben and Joanne taught me, and they are good sources: combined, about a sixty years of exceptional clinical experience with tens of thousands of people. If they say that breathing is emotionally stimulating and expressive, and that people start shutting that down when they are very small, I’m going to run with it. Much of this article depends upon it, in fact, hence the detailed footnote. BACK TO TEXT
  8. 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. BACK TO TEXT
  9. See 7 Reasons Older Adults Don’t Stay in Exercise Classes, which reports on a lot of recent scientific evidence about the importance of exercise. BACK TO TEXT
  10. Simons, op. Cit., from the introduction to Vol. 1.BACK TO TEXT
  11. Hertling, Randolph, & Kessler. Management of Common Musculoskeletal Disorders, 3rd Edition. p575. New York: Lippincott, 1996. BACK TO TEXT
  12. Maigne R. Manipulation of the spine. In Basmajian JV (ed): Manipulation, Traction and Massage. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins, 1986. BACK TO TEXT
  13. Hertling, op. Cit., p574. Darlene Hertling clearly elucidates Maigne’s ideas about MIDs, with reference to the thoracic spine. Likely the idea can be sensibly applied to other sections of the spine as well. BACK TO TEXT
  14. Simons, op. Cit., Vol. 1, p314. BACK TO TEXT
  15. Magee, David J. Orthopedic Physical Assessment. 219-221. Toronto: WB Saunders Company, 1997. This text describes special orthopedic tests for determining which of the scalenes or pectoralis minor muscles may be impinging circulatory supply to the arm. BACK TO TEXT
  16. 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.”

  17. 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.”

  18. 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.”

  19. 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. BACK TO TEXT