The average person takes up to 21,000 breaths per day.  That’s a lot!  I’ll bet that a majority of us don’t even think about how we breathe.  The way we in which we breathe though is actually very important.  If our breathing is inefficient or dysfunctional it can contribute to a range of problems.

Dysfunctional breathing is a condition common in asthmatics and people with stress and anxiety disorders.  However, even people without these problems can have dysfunctional breathing.  It is estimated that its prevalence rate in the general population is as high as 5 – 11%. Dysfunctional breathing can be involved in a range of conditions such as neck and back pain, headache, speech and vocal chord problems and is even suspected in playing a role in certain heart problems.

Normal breathing vs dysfunctional breathing

When we breathe in at rest, our large dome shaped diaphragm muscle acts like a hydraulic plunger. When it contracts, it flattens and moves downwards into our abdomen.  This forces our abdominal contents down and out, expanding our belly. This good breathing is usually described as “abdominal breathing” or “diaphragmatic breathing”. (Any of you who play a brass or wind instrument, or sing will know all about the importance of breathing like this!)

“Chest breathing” is the most commonly seen breathing dysfunction.  This is when muscles in the upper part of our chest and throat become over active on inhalation.  Whilst breathing in people lift their rib cage and shoulders upwards. In severe cases this can be accompanied by an inward movement of our abdomen.  So instead of letting the belly move outward during inhalation, it is sucked in. This is known as “reverse” breathing and is not a good thing to be doing all the time!

“Mouth breathing” is another form of dysfunctional breathing.  Like the name suggests it is when a person inhales and exhales through their mouth instead of their nose. Common causes include enlarged tonsils or adenoids, allergies, sinus or nose blockage. Mouth breathers also often display chest breathing tendancies.

The effects of dysfunctional breathing on the body

Overuse of our chest and upper neck muscles whilst breathing simply tires them out.  As a result they become tight and painful which causes muscular imbalance and poor upper body posture.  The head sits forwards from the body and the shoulders are rounded.  This poor posture is almost always seen in mouth breathers who have a tendancy to carry their head forwards in order to try to help them breathe.  The resulting combination of over worked muscles and poor posture seen in dysfunctional breathing can cause and contribute to many conditions.  These include neck pain, jaw problems, headaches and shoulder pain.

Mouth breathing is ridiculously common in children and can cause other major health problems.  Children have a characteristic long face, small jaw with crowded teeth and a narrowed nasal airway passage.  Mouth breathing is linked to gum disease, lowered immune system and poor health, enlarged tonsils, poor sleep and poor development.

Self-test and simple breathing exercise

1.  Lie down on your back with a pillow under your head and your knees bent.  Place one hand on your upper chest and the other on your belly.

2.  Take a slow deep breath in through your nose so that your belly is moving outwards against your hand.  Picture your lower ribs and abdomen as a balloon, expanding outwards in all directions as you breathe in.  Your chest should be the last part to move during this exercise.

3.  Breathe out slowly and evenly through your mouth.  Let your ribs and abdomen fall inward as you fully expel all the air.

4.  Repeat this cycle several times.

Life is busy and stressful these days. This alone leads to shallow fast breathing patterns in almost all of us. If you feel like you are constantly chasing your tail, you won’t be breathing easily and effectively. Just reminding yourself to take a break, breathe deeply and slowly can be helpful for easing your body and settling your mind.

by Saskia Harris