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Chest vs. Stomach Breathing

Breathing is essential for life and  is controlled by our autonomic nervous system which means that it is something that just happens, without us having to think about it. There are many patients that I see in my practice who don't breathe correctly and as a result they can be impacted negatively in a number of ways.

Breathing can be from one of two areas in the lungs. They are...

  1.  Chest
  2.  Belly

To determine which type of breather you are can be determined with a very simple self test. To perform the test, lie down on your back and place once hand on your chest and the other on your belly and observe to see which hand is going up and down when you breathe.
If it is your belly, then you are breathing correctly and you are using your diaphragm.
If the hand on your chest is going up and down then you are a chest breather and you are not breathing correctly.

Why is chest breathing not ideal ?
Chest breathing is when only the upper part of a person's lungs are being used to breathe and the chest expands and contracts with each breath, while the abdominal area does not. As a result only the upper part of the lungs are filled with air and the lower parts are not, which results in less air being taken in with each breath.

In order to make up for the decreased volume of air taken in with each breath the person must breath more often, this is known as  hyper ventilation. The normal number of breaths per minute are 12-18 and if you are in the upper range or are taking more thean18 breaths, then you are on the edge of hyper ventilation or are already there. These breaths are shallow and short and quick, and deliver less oxygen to the bloodstream with each breath than if the volume of air inhaled with each breath was larger, which is what happens when one breathes through their belly and uses their diaphragm.

The muscles that are used for chest breathing are called secondary muscles of respiration and they are designed to be used only during increased physical exertion. (the diaphragm is the primary muscle of respiration). When these muscle are overused it results in upper back and neck tightness and tension headaches are often present.

What causes chest breathing?
The most common cause of chest breathing is physical exertion and the second common causes are psychological stress and anxiety. The positive thing about this is that learning to breath properly can be used as a very powerful tool to combat stress and anxiety.

What is belly breathing?
Belly or diaphragmatic breathing pulls air down to fully inflate the lungs and the belly goes up and down with each breath.
Breaths taken while belly breathing are slow and deep and a the lungs are filled with a full amount of air during each breath and as a result larger amount of oxygen are delivered to the bloodstream.

Can a person learn and train themselves to breath properly?
The answer is Yes and Breathing exercises to correct breathing can be learned

Breathing exercises are ideally done at home while lying down on the couch or in bed. Place one hand on your belly and the other on your chest and take a deep breath and focus on elevating your belly when you breathe in and letting your belly drop when you breathe out. Practice this with each breath and make each breath deeper and deeper and slower and slower. It also helps if you breathe in and out through your nose.

When you don't have the luxury of lying down you can do this while standing. The more that you practice the deeper your belly breaths will be and this will happen more naturally without conscious prompting.

Breathing awareness
A big part of learning how to breathe is having awareness of how you are breathing throughout your day. This requires one to check themselves periodically throughout the day to see if the belly or chest are being used to breathe. It is common that when stress or anxiety increases, that the breath will become shallow and one will switch to chest breathing. It is during these times that it is a good idea to take a second and consciously work on maintaining a deep abdominal breath.

In conclusion
Identifying the way that you breathe is a worthwhile exercise and if you find that you are a chest breather it is important that you practice and use your diaphragm to breathe. This will help in decreasing upper back and neck tightness as well as to manage stress. If you are a chest breather and have upper back or neck tightness, we can help you with chiropractic and/or massage therapy treatments.