Healthy Breathing, Not all Breaths Pack the Same Punch


A July 2015 survey conducted by the AMTA found that 52% of individuals surveyed sought massage for medical reasons, including: “pain relief, soreness, stiffness or spasms, injury recovery, migraines, prevention, pregnancy or pre-natal, and general well-being.”   Another 23% received massage for stress-related concerns. These are all excellent reasons to seek a qualified massage therapist, but there is another, often overlooked, reason individuals should seek massage.  A condition that is pervasive among almost everyone you see. If addressed, a condition helps to alleviate an individual’s stress and pain and leads to better overall health and happiness. This condition, which very few clients have on their list of complaints, is chest breathing.

Chest breathing is an altered breathing pattern also referred to as shallow breathing or thoracic breathing.  Chest breaths are usually short and quick and only use a small portion of the lung’s capacity since only the upper lung lobes are inflated.   This minimizes oxygen intake to the body because of the reduced capacity, and the lower 10% of the lungs can transport 6 to 7 times more oxygen per minute than the top 10% of the lungs.  This increased efficiency occurs because the lower lungs have a better blood supply than the lungs' top. On the other hand, diaphragmatic or belly breathing allows for symmetrical inflation of the lungs and uses the lungs' full capacity.

Breathing or respiration involves an inhale, and an exhale.  The inhale brings fresh, oxygen-rich air into the body.  Once there, the oxygen is exchanged for carbon dioxide and other toxic gases (methanol, ethanol, acetone) between the alveoli and the pulmonary capillaries. The exhale releases these toxins into the outside world.

During diaphragmatic breathing, the diaphragm - which separates the thoracic and abdominal cavities via its attachments to the lower ribs, spine, and lumbar vertebra – initiates inhalation by contracting.  This contraction causes the diaphragm muscle to flatten and drop from its position above the ribs into the abdominal cavity.  As a result, the lower ribs move upward and forward, increasing the volume of the thoracic cavity.  The increase in volume or expansion of the thoracic cavity creates a vacuum that literally sucks air into the lungs to fill the void.  Exhalation on a normal, non-exerted breath is a passive process that occurs naturally as the lungs and ribcage return to the position as the diaphragm relaxes after inspiration.

In chest breathing, the pectoralis minor, sternocleidomastoid, and scalene muscles contract to expand the thoracic cavity instead of the diaphragm.  Interestingly, this shift to the accessory muscles doing the bulk of the work can actually lock down the diaphragm. The physiologic consequences of chest breathing are numerous and can be devastating!

Therapists can assist clients by working on releasing “trouble” areas such as:

  1. Upper Trapezius
  2. Scalene Muscles
  3. Sternocleidomastoid
  4. Diaphragm
  5. Pec Major
  6. Pec Minor
  7. Muscles along the Thoracic Spine

Altered breathing patterns are an often overlooked component of many common symptoms clients complain about when seeking massage and are frequently a major obstacle in achieving recovery if not addressed.  Understanding breathing patterns and the associated muscles can empower therapists to make a significant difference in these clients' wellbeing!


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