Manual Therapy for the Body and the Mind

Breathing and Posture

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Good Standing PosturePosture Is Huge!

When we think of posture, we often think of standing in “perfect” balance, with ears aligned over shoulders, over hips, over knees, over ankles. But really, posture is more a study of how we hold ourselves as we go through our daily lives. This includes standing, sitting, walking, swinging a golf club, shooting hoops, carrying the kids, and any other form we might take, whether static or moving. The closer we are to a healthy balance of tension side to side, front to back and top to bottom, the more easily we are able to move, feel less pain, and…..breathe better… Yes, Breathe Better!

Posture and breathing are inextricably linked. When one is affected, the other can not help but also be affected.

 This discussion focuses on 3 main areas of the body that are central to both breathing and posture.

3d rendered illustration - diaphragm

Respiratory Diaphragm

  •         A dome shaped muscular structure
  •         About the thickness of a dime
  •         Curves up into the chest
  •         Separates the chest from the abdomen
  •         Supports the heart and lungs
  •         Attaches at the back of the sternum (breast bone), inside surfaces of the lowest 6 ribs and the front of the lumbar spine

It has tendons (called crura), which pull down on the dome. This pulling down creates a vacuum in the opening above, drawing oxygen into the lungs, which are prepared to receive it. Its connective tissue is continuous with that of the heart and lungs above, and of the viscera below. The tendons further connect the diaphragm with its surroundings, making it both a carrier and source of information for structures around and distant to it.

inner-core image

 Pelvic Floor

  • A combination of muscles and connective tissue
  • Makes up a sling that supports the internal organs
  • Maintains stability in the core
  • Supports the fetus during pregnancy
  • Controls passing of waste out of the body 
  • Controls intra-abdominal pressure

 

 

3d rendered illustration of the male skeleton

Occiput

  • This bone makes up the base and back of the skull
  • Contains the “foramen magnum”, an opening where the spinal cord and associated tissues, nerve and arteries pass through to the rest of the body
  • Supports the brain
  •   Musculature at the base of the occiput (back of head) is associated with head positioning (POSTURE), breathing, circulation to brain, eye movement, and emotional state

Points of interest:

  1.     These 3 structures form horizontal partitions in the body
  2.     They separate the head from the chest, the chest from the abdominal region, and the abdominal space from the lower extremities
  3.     They “talk” to each other constantly, conveying information throughout the body, adjusting pressure, blood flow, chemical balance
  4.     Breathing is an important interconnection between the 3
  5.     Breathing is one of the body’s only functions that easily and naturally switches between conscious and unconscious control

 

A brief exercise

If you would, please indulge me with this simple exercise. Take a breath, then let it go. Did you notice how simple it was to transition from an unconscious to a conscious activity? Was there a difference between the breath before and after thinking about it?

Now, think about your “best” posture. Maybe sit on the edge of your chair with feet firmly on the ground. Open up a bit in front of your body; bring the head and shoulders back just a little, not enough to strain. Put one hand on the belly, and another on the chest. Breathe in slowly and deeply. Fill the belly, feel the air move into the chest. Really fill the chest, all the way to the collarbones. Hold it a couple of seconds. Let it out in reverse, from collarbones to chest to belly, and push all the way out. Notice how this feels compared to the previous breath. Can you feel the increase in oxygen in your body? Try it again, and see if you can feel movement in the back of your head and pelvic base.

 If you want to go a step further, try standing. Place your hands on the belly and chest, similar to where they were when you were sitting. Take another deep breath, filling the belly, then the chest up to the collarbones. Hold it, then release.

Did you notice a difference between sitting versus standing? Possibly less restricted in the diaphragm? In the pelvis? The back of the head is a little harder to feel, but it also becomes more restricted when sitting, especially if our posture is less than optimal.

 

Breathing happens Lekking Black Grouse

Whether we are paying attention or not. It is such a basic need that we usually don’t think about it, nor do we need to. When we are physically active, more of our lung capacity is needed to provide the oxygen our bodies use. This just happens.

The more sedentary we are, the more likely we are to use a fraction of that capacity. A basic rule of physiology is “use it or lose it”. Lung capacity, muscle strength and elasticity, bone/ joint strength and mobility, heart health, brain and even immune capacity are all impacted by this simple rule. Activities that focus on breathing, such as yoga, meditation, and martial arts, can help strengthen our ability to breathe more effectively. And of course, we can apply conscious breathing to almost any activity, and gain some benefit. If, in doing this exercise, you felt resistance or achiness in your body, you may well have breathing restrictions that could afford to be addressed.

 

Interconnections

As mentioned, there are numerous connective tissue links, particularly between the diaphragm and the internal organs. In addition, the nervous system has its own set of connections, the main one being through the phrenic nerve. Not only does this nerve have a huge role in breathing, a primary function being to innervate the diaphragm, it also controls vocalization, swallowing, expectoration and other actions related to the mouth and throat. The phrenic nerve interacts with the nerves of the neck and shoulders, as well as the vagus nerve, which links to several cranial nerves, including the greater occipital nerve. This nerve supplies and receives information from the suboccipital muscles (the muscles in the back of the head that control fine movement of the head). Further connections in the brain coordinate action with the diaphragm and muscles of the pelvic floor. When one moves up or down, the other moves in coordination.

Breathing plays an important role in cardiovascular and lymph circulation. The pumping action of the diaphragm assists in bringing blood and lymph back to the heart.

BreathingBreathing Challenges

As you can see, healthy breathing is important to support most, if not All, of the other systems in the body. While there are health challenges that are beyond our control; for example cancer, COPD, hernias; there are at least as many that are related to habit. Postural deviations, shallow breathing, holding the breath, use of upper back, neck and shoulder muscles to activate breath rather than those that are much better positioned for it, are all within our ability to improve with some effort. All of these patterns are part of normal stress response. Whether brought on by ongoing stress or by other means, they feed the cycle which is so common today.

Poor Sitting Posture

Postural Challenges

Any number of postural patterns can lead to restrictions in breathing. I mentioned before that sitting, in and of itself, challenges the core areas involved with healthy breathing. Add to this that the objects we sit in and on more often than not contribute to slumping, deviations in head and shoulder position and weakening of the core muscles. One of the most common results of this that I see daily is what is commonly referred to as

Forward Head PostureForward Head Posture

Computer users, people who spend a lot of time driving, those who regularly carry loads that are heavier than their core can support, are all highly susceptible to this. I have even worked with some who have such overly developed 6-pack muscles that they are pulled into this posture from below.

Telltale signs are:
  • The shoulders round forward and are pulled down
  • The upper back hunches forward
  • The chin juts out in front

The head shifts out in front of the shoulders, causing compression in the back of the neck and increased stress on the muscles. The chest closes in, restricting movement and breathing. Along with breathing issues, headache, sleep apnea, as well as pain in the neck and shoulders  are all common complaints associated with this condition.

How Can Massage Help?

As anyone who has received a half decent massage can attest, relaxation is often integral to the process. Even with deeper, therapeutic, and more challenging work, when areas of continued tension begin to release, the body tends to go into a more calm state. This aspect, by itself, can assist in reducing the fight-or-flight cycle that often contributes to postural challenges. Specific attention to the diaphragm, head and neck, and pelvic floor (which I typically refer out to physical therapists with training in this area) do a fantastic job of freeing up the breathing process and improving posture. In conjunction with self care exercises to increase awareness about breathing, movement and posture, many of my clients have found significant improvement in these areas, as well as overall wellbeing. As always, I would love to hear feedback about the content provided here, or personal experiences with this important topic.

Main Resource: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3731110/

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