by Stéphane Sterk - June 5th, 2022
On an early October afternoon, a man in his forties walked into the clinic I was working in, in the centre of Oslo. He had booked an appointment for an examination and a treatment for his neck pain, as well as for diffuse digestive problems. During the consultation, as I was taking case notes, he also opened up about feeling stressed and experiencing declining levels of energy.
After a mapping conversation and a thorough examination, I found several areas that needed help, besides his neck. For us osteopaths, communication is an essential tool that helps us to understand how the current issue, but also other problems might have occurred in the first place. I told my patient about “stress breathing”. I could see that he was breathing with his shoulders and talked as he inhaled. The exhalation was almost non-existent.
It has been shown that pressure conditions between the abdomen and the chest cavity are altered by “stress breathing”, and when that happens, it has a negative impact on the overall circulation. The whole body needs circulation and the breathing muscles, in addition to the heart’s muscle, are among the most important factors responsible for the distribution of healthy and nutritious blood to the cells throughout the body.
The breathing muscle
What a lot of people don’t know is that our most important breathing muscle sits just below the lungs, separating the abdominal cavity from the thoracic cavity. It is what we call the diaphragm, or thoracic diaphragm. It is a thin and upward curved, dome-shaped muscle that is conceived to be flexible. In a resting position, the diaphragm is high up in the thoracic cavity. When we breathe in, the muscle fibres contract, so the muscle moves down and flattens outwards. Because the diaphragm is linked to all the inner organs, such as the liver, the kidneys, the stomach and the spine, a deep inhalation will result in a natural inner “massage” of these respective organs. This is why the stomach expands as we breathe in. This is also why “stress breathing” and reduced mobility of the diaphragm can have a direct impact on our intestinal functions. This is what I suspected might be the case regarding my patient’s digestive issues.
An underestimated ability
The importance of our breath is highly underestimated, both by health practitioners and by the majority of people. Yet, we breathe between 15-30 000 times a day, and this is the only function in our body that is both conscious and unconscious. A good and deep breathing is important for both our physical and mental wellbeing alike. We can equally say that our breathing is a good barometer for our mood. Small changes in our way of breathing can make a big difference in our daily lives. Isn’t it fantastic that such a precious tool is free? And there is a lot you can do on your own, be it in your home office, at work, on the bus, on the train, at the gym or in the forest. Wherever you want, actually. However, before we can bring changes to the way we breathe, it can be good to start by understanding how we breathe.
Try this easy exercise
Here is a simple example of what you can do: start by closing your eyes and finding a calm and peaceful space within you. Try to observe your breathing. Just become aware of the fact that you are breathing in, and breathing out. You can place a hand on your chest and the other hand on your diaphragm. Just feel how these areas move as you breathe.
Interactions in the body
When our breathing is superficial or stressed, this results in the neck being overworked, because the muscles in the neck have to work extra hard to expand the thoracic cage during inhalation. When the diaphragm is tense and inactive, the throat and neck musculatures simply have no choice but to take over. This can result in the neck being painful and tense. Over time, this can lead to headaches, for example, and low energy levels.
After several sessions, my patient experienced that his problems were progressively disappearing. His level of energy increased, at the same pace as the expression on his face looked more and more joyful. In this particular case, I worked a lot on freeing the tensions in the neck, the back and in the breathing muscle itself. My patient was also made aware of his breathing patterns. At the same time, we looked for exercises that were easy to implement, so he could continue working on his own.
When we loose energy, we usually end up pretty soon also loosing the joy and the motivation of being active. It is, therefore, all too easy to fall into a vicious circle that maintains and worsens our condition. Thankfully, in this case, we were able to correct the problem before it got worse. This is a good illustration of the body’s fascinating interactions.
At Kokoon Wellness, we look at how things relate to each other in a given context. We are totally committed to help and guide you towards the best version of yourself.