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Is stress and posture impacting your breathing?

There are many reasons why your breathing may have changed recently, and on an anatomical level there are a few key signs that something is impacting this vital mechanism.

When we breathe there is a flow of air into and out of the lungs that comprises of various elements that the body needs to function. The body is fantastic at taking air from the lungs and delivering it to where it is needed. When we have a breathing pattern disorder (BPD) this mechanism is impacted in a negative way.

What can cause these problems?

We’ve all heard of how people under stress can have sore shoulders or a tight neck and for reasons I won’t go into here, the limbic system (stress response system) affects certain muscles in this area quite fast, faster than anywhere else in the body. Stress can cause muscles around the neck region to become short and tight and a muscle that is tight will pull on bones and change how things move.

Poor posture can also hugely impact the length of these muscles and subsequently how we breathe. Just look at how people hold their mobile phone or sit awkwardly looking at their computer screen and you'll see it first hand.

  There are a number of key muscles that assist in the mechanics of breathing and when they don’t function how they were designed to, we don’t breathe properly. This may be a subtle breathing difference, but even a subtle difference is enough. One key BPD is demonstrated by upper chest breathing (UCB). 

UCB is classically shallow and faster because our body is trying to get more oxygen into our lungs, oxygen that our changed breathing method is no longer allowing. You may experience a feeling of being slightly short of breath or having to take deeper breaths more frequently, sighing more often is also a commonly associated symptom.

Here's the numbers and here's the problem

The average human takes anywhere between 14,400 to 20,000 breaths every single day! With exercise, this may move to 40,000 breaths every day. That’s a lot of contractions of the entire breathing mechanism that isn’t working ideally every single day. Oxygen in the blood helps to maintain the pH balance between acid and alkaline within our body (pH 7.35 – pH 7.45), without enough oxygen the blood pH starts to move and it is this shift that can have a big knock-on effect to the body.

The key bit to understand is that the body will sacrifice many other things in order to keep the pH balanced in your blood. The adaptations that the body will go through when we have chronic BPD to get more oxygen are as follows and are quite surprising:

Pelvic floor weakness and weakened abdominal muscles. Fascial restriction from the central tendon all the way up to the basiocciput. Elevated upper ribs. Thoracic spine will be disturbed. Tight scalenes, upper trapezius and levator scapulae muscles. Fibrosis of muscles and trigger points. A reduction in the mobility of the 2nd cervical segment and second rib. Shortening of the quadratus lumborum, iliopsoas, and transversus muscles.

The above points can lead to more and more pain over a period of time if not assessed and corrected, leading to seemingly unrelated problems.

What should you do if you feel you have BPD?

Get your posture checked and begin the journey of anatomical correction through sports massage and personal training with a professional to deal with the physical aspect (see April Blog).

Look into stress reduction techniques to limit the limbic systems impact on the muscles that aid/effect breathing. Mindfulness and meditation can be a real 'game changer' (I recommend reading ‘The Power Of Now’ by Eckhart Tolle as a great starting point). Over time your breathing pattern can return to optimal and the body will no longer need to go into the unwanted adaptation to correct the pH levels in your blood.

(If you have concerns regarding your breathing please get yourself checked out by your GP to ensure there are no underlying health conditions that need addressing).

Breathing disorder rehabilitation Oxford

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