Breathing is fundamental to life. It is through breathing that the body obtains oxygen necessary for metabolism, and excretes carbon dioxide, a by product of metabolism. The efficiency of breathing has a profound influence on health – poor breathing habits can lead to symptoms ranging from muscular pain to digestion problems to mood alterations. The most common breathing disorder is overbreathing or hyperventilation.

Biomechanics of Breathing

The diaphragm is the primary muscle involved in breathing. It is a dome shaped muscle which attaches to the inferior margin of the rib cage and the upper lumbar vertebra and to a central tendon. The contraction of the diaphragm increases the size of the thoracic cavity, causing a pressure differential which results in air being inhaled into the lungs. The diaphragm is assisted by accessory muscles which lift the upper ribs upwards and forwards or allow sideways expansion of the lower rib cage. Breathing that emphasises diaphragmatic movement is more efficient than breathing that emphasises upper rib movement.

Stress plays an important role in breathing patterns. For example, upper rib breathing is a normal sympathetic nervous system response to alarm. However, prolonged stress can cause dysfunctional breathing patterns, such as hyperventilation, to develop. Fortunately, it is possible to reverse dysfunctional breathing patterns through treatment and breath retraining.

Implications of Breathing Disorders

Because of the vital importance of breathing for efficient physiological functioning, breathing disorders can be debilitating, and symptoms associated with such disorders can be very wide ranging. Symptoms as diverse as musculoskeletal pain, panic attacks, irritable bowel and fatigue might be caused or aggravated by breathing disorders.

It has been suggested that as much as 10% of the population may be suffering with hyperventilation. In hyperventilation, excessive exhalation leads to respiratory alkalosis – a change in the pH of the blood from a normal of 7.4 to 7.5 pH. Amongst its many effects, such alkalosis causes blood vessel constriction which impairs the efficiency of delivering oxygen to the body’s tissues. Common symptoms of hyperventilation include chest pain, dizzy spells, feelings of anxiety and tingling in the fingers or arms.

Treatment for Breathing Disorders

Treatment for breathing disorders may include:

  • Manual treatment to reduce tension in the muscles of respiration, and to increase thoracic spine and rib cage flexibility.
  • Breathing retraining to encourage diaphragmatic breathing, and to slowdown the rate of respiration while extending the exhalation phase.