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Deep Breathing Exercises

Decrease Neck Pain, Reduce Stress & Lower Blood Pressure with Deep Breathing Exercises

Anytime someone says, “I carry all of my stress in my shoulders,” what I hear them saying is, “I shallow breathe frequently!” or “my posture really stinks and I shallow breathe frequently!”.

Deep breathing exercises can reduce stress, lower blood pressure and help in neck pain relief.  Breathing exercises can be done lying down, seated or standing (we recommend practicing in the lying position at first).  Shallow breathing can lead to neck pain, jaw pain, shoulder pain, headaches, shoulder blade pain, and indigestion/hiatal hernia.  Shallow breathing, or breath holding, causes the muscles in the front of the neck, the scalene muscles, to become overworked.  This pattern of dysfunctional breathing coupled with poor posture frequently leads to overcompensation in other muscles of the neck and shoulders. The pain pattern for the scalene muscles may be felt in the shoulder and even down the arm to the hand. Chest breathing can cause an increase in blood pressure and decrease the volume of air in the lungs causing the neck muscles to work extra to lift the ribcage (not what they were designed to do).

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The muscles involved with poor breathing techniques are the scalene muscles. These muscles are in front of the neck and attach the neck to the upper rib cage. The “X” is the trigger point in the muscle, cause of the pain, and the red areas are where pain, tingling or numbness typically result.

Deep breathing is also known as “diaphragmatic” or belly breathing.  When you breathe properly, using your diaphragm, oxygen is able to reach all parts of your lungs and more oxygen can then get into your bloodstream.  More oxygen in your body provides improved energy and health.  If you watch children play you will notice that they breathe with their diaphragms, instinctively.  Many adults, on the other hand appear to breathe with their shoulders.  A deep breath for many of us involves bring the shoulders up around the ears and tensing the abdomen.  This is exactly opposite to what you want to do if your trying to relaxes your body.  Shoulder breathing not only promotes shoulder muscle tension, it also prevents air from getting to the bases of the lungs resulting in less efficient breathing.The art of deep breathing is rather simple.  Begin by lying on your back in a quiet room.  Place your hand on your solar plexus just below your rib cage and feel your abdomen rise and fall while you breathe.  It should rise up as you breathe in and fall as you breathe out.  Now try a deep breath, always keeping the same pattern.  Breathe in through your nose for a count of four seconds, hold your breathing for four seconds and exhale through your mouth for a count of four seconds.

Once this technique has been mastered in the lying position, it can be performed throughout the day while sitting, standing and walking.  A deep breathing session is like a miniature time out which allows the mind to slow down and the body to relax by decreasing any unhealthy stress response the body is experiencing.

Our bodies are naturally designed to breathe deeply, however, throughout life we develop a habit of shallow breathing associated with poor posture and/or the fight or flight response that is constantly being triggered by our being plugged into the world of technology, overwork and other stressors.  We must re-learn proper breathing habits through diaphragmatic breathing exercises.  I have observed poor breathing habits in 90+% of our patients and it standard practice to teach deep breathing exercises, to not only decrease the stress on the neck, but on the entire body.  The results are often dramatic.

At first, you may have difficulty coordinating your deep breathing muscles properly, but with some practice diaphragmatic breathing can become natural.  The first step to breathing deeply in your normal routine is to catch yourself shallow breathing or holding your breath!  Anytime you are running To-Do lists through your head, worrying, feeling overwhelmed or experiencing neck pain, stress (mental, physical or both) or anxiety, you are almost always shallow breathing.

6237131The breathing pattern illustrated on the left shows the incorrect breathing pattern that most people utilize.  This pattern of inhalation is primarily in the chest with minimal or no movement in the diaphragm and abdomen.  This incorrect breathing pattern creates a stress chemical response in the body and significant trigger points in the scalenes and ultimately leads to chronic pain in the neck and shoulders.

7158405Place one hand on the abdomen and the other on your chest and breathe slowly through your nose noticing the movement. The normal movement pattern during inhalation should initiate with the diaphragm/abdomen and finish with the expansion of the chest followed by the same pattern in exhalation.

8052825The normal movement pattern during exhalation should begin with diaphragm/abdomen moving toward the spine and finish with the contraction of the chest.  During exhalation the diaphragm relaxes, emptying the lungs by pushing the lungs upward. The more relaxed the diaphragm, the better the exhalation!

Help your neck muscles by getting assistance to carry awkward packages that require lifting with the arms extended out in front, pulling or tugging strenuously. When exerting vigorous effort, consciously try to reduce neck muscle tension caused by raising the shoulders and projecting the head forward. in addition to deep breathing, the neck exerciser  can help reduce neck strain due to shallow breathing and poor posture.  It is critical that you are mindful of breathing deeply anytime you straining while performing activity or are feeling stressed or overwhelmed.

An article related to breathing and neck pain in Medical Hypotheses, 2007 Oct 22; Neck pain causes respiratory dysfunction; describes a presumptive mechanism for the development of changes in respiratory function due to chronic neck pain.

The patient with neck pain presents a number of factors that could constitute a predisposition of leading to a respiratory dysfunction:
(a) the decreased strength of deep neck flexors and extensors,
(b) the hyperactivity and increased fatigability of superficial neck flexors,
(c) the limitation of range of motion,
(d) the decrease in proprioception and disturbances in neuromuscular control,
(e) the existence of pain and
(f) the psychosocial influence of dysfunction.

The possible connection of neck pain and respiratory function could have a great impact on various clinical aspects notably patient assessment, rehabilitation and pharmacological prescription.


Illustrations from Myofascial pain and dysfunction: the trigger point manual by Travell & Simons