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Drop your shoulders”, “Don’t let your shoulders be your earrings”, “Relax your chest and shoulders.”

These are the cues that many of us with neck, back, and shoulder pain may hear from a medical provider.  However, you cannot overcome elevated shoulders with increased awareness alone.

Why not?

Because elevated shoulders are the result of improper breathing. If you are a chest breather (incorrect) instead of a belly breather (correct) than you need to elevate your shoulders in order to get air into your lungs. Unfortunately, modern life has caused many of us to lose the ability to use our main breathing muscle, the diaphragm, to breathe.  Instead, we use our shoulders, upper chest, neck, and back muscles to inhale. This creates a shallow and rapid breathing pattern and elevated shoulders. While this doesn’t mean you are unable to breathe, it does mean that your capacity for breath is impeded.

We were born with the inherent ability to breathe with our diaphragm. If you watch a baby or child breathe, you will notice their belly moving in and out as it fills and releases with air. As we age, the ability to breathe properly starts to diminish with prolonged sitting, poor posture, increased stress, and chronic pain. Even workplace inefficiency contributes to changes in breathing. The more active you are – both at home with friends and family and family and while working – the better off you are.

When people use their upper body to inhale, this is called an improper breathing pattern. Breathing this way creates a vicious cycle of pain and dysfunction.  Poor posture contributes to improper breathing and improper breathing contributes to poor posture.  Both scenarios set you up for chronic back, shoulder, and neck pain which increases stress and changes posture, keeping the cycle going.

improper breathing

How do we break the cycle?

Breathing directly affects our central nervous system.

Learning how to breathe diaphragmatically, sometimes called belly breathing, can help to break the negative cycle discussed above. Diaphragmatic breathing gives you access to your parasympathetic nervous system which is the “down regulator” of the central nervous system. This system helps you to de-stress, lower blood pressure, and decrease heart rate. Deep breathing gives you the ability to downregulate. Improper breathing is also known as shallow neck and upper chest breathing. This is interpreted by the central nervous system. It is a cue to amplify the sympathetic (“fight or flight”) nervous system to create a high alert, increased stressed state as well as higher blood pressure and increased heart rate.

Upper chest breathing promotes a chronic state of increased stress that can exacerbate pain and is deleterious to long-term health. This often happens to athletes with improper form, those that underlying health conditions like Alzheimer’s disease or asthma, or people that are simply performing the wrong home exercises.

 “Take a deep breath”!

Place one hand on your belly and one hand on your chest. Take a deep breath. You’ll feel your belly expand with air as you breathe in and deflate as you breathe out. The hand on your chest does not move.

Deep breathing can elicit a relaxation response in as little as 90 seconds. This is one of the exercises that can (and should) be performed multiple times a day. It’s fast, it’s easy, and it’s very healthy. Coupled with other quick home exercises, deep breathing is one that shouldn’t be overlooked because it seems “too” simple to do any good. 

That is why breathing is the common denominator of all mind-body practices.  A daily practice of deep belly breathing can decrease stress and increase awareness.  Increased awareness allows us to be more in tune with how we move and what we feel. This enhances the ability to interpret movements as harmful before getting injured. This is one of the pregnancy exercises recommended by many physicians. Why? it gives expectant mothers a chance to step back and have some personal time, along with giving them a chance to appreciate the non physical benefits of exercise.

You can practice diaphragmatic breathing in many positions. Three positions where you can practice diaphragmatic breathing include: laying on your belly, laying on your back, or sitting in a chair.  Watch the video below for more tips on how to practice proper breathing.

Therefore, next time someone tells you to relax your shoulders, think about taking a proper deep breath and you will feel your shoulders relax. This may be the key to taking away that chronic pain that you have been experiencing.

Proper Breathing Goes Hand in Hand With All Exercises

From hip flexor exercises to running marathons and having healthy hamstrings, all exercise efficiency is improved with proper breathing. The better you can breathe, the better your exercise routine is. Improper breathing may lead you to cut exercise short, which is never a good thing. Exercise is meant to be done at all times throughout the year, but certain times will be better than others for specific exercises. Know what the best time to do exercise is. know how to do these exercises to the best of your ability. Educate yourself – either by going online or consulting with a physical therapy expert.

The more you know about proper breathing and the correct way to exercise, the more prepared you are for success.

Learn more about your body and if you are breathing properly. Do this by scheduling a physical therapy appointment for evaluation and assessment. You can now see a physical therapist without a prescription from a doctor via direct access. You can find Melissa Barrett Physical Therapy & Yoga along with hundreds of other clinics on the BetterPT clinic location tool website and the mobile app. For patients seeking care and treatment without leaving their homes, the BetterTelehealth platform is a convenient option/

Proper Breathing is a necessity and the key to healthy living. Don’t wait to start breathing better, book an appointment today.

Dr. Melissa Barrett is the owner of Melissa Barrett Physical Therapy & Yoga, and has over 15 years of physical therapy treatment experience. Dr. Barrett is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and has a Master’s degree in Public health.