First of all, if you are having a new symptom around breathing difficulty, you should go get checked out by your doctor. If severe, call an ambulance or get to your emergency department as soon as possible. Breathing difficulties can be signs of heart and lung issues so always get the more serious causes ruled out first and foremost! Lesser medical causes of breathing difficulties may include asthma, inflammation from a common cold and even anxiety or panic attacks.
Tight muscles can absolutely cause breathing difficulty. There are certain muscles involved in both the exhalation and inhalation process. If any of these muscles become tight, overused or develop trigger point activity (commonly referred to as a knot in the muscle) then this muscle’s function may be inhibited.
The diaphragm is innervated by the phrenic nerve which comes from the neck (C3-C5). It is the primary breathing muscle and also acts as a barrier between your lungs and stomach. This muscle attaches to your ribs, your spine and the lower part of your breast bone. (picture from yoga anatomy)
Because of the diaphragms attachment points, it can easily be affected by postural changes. If you have any neck issues, this can also play a role in dysfunction of the diaphragm leading to breathing difficulty. To assess the function of your diaphragm, place your hands on your lower ribs and take a breath in. Did you feel your ribs opening outwards to the sides? If not, it may be a sign that at least in part, your diaphragm is contributing to your breathing difficulties.
Practice Diaphragm Breathing to Relieve Breathing Difficulty
Tie a stretch band around your lower ribs and look in a mirror. Try to breath to make the band expand out to the sides. If you don’t have a band, you can use your hands, but the mirror is helpful to see a visual cue for the movement. Practice this daily with 10 slow deep breaths in, and 10 slow breaths fully exhaling and feeling the ribs come back to their resting place. Once you get good at it, you can practice it more often throughout your day without the aid of the mirror and band.
If you think you may have trigger point activity inhibiting your ability to do this movement, come have an assessment and treatment with us. Click here to find a time that suits you best!
The Intercostal Muscles
The intercostal muscles that run between each rib are another main breathing muscle that can cause breathing difficulty. If you get a knock in the ribs, have a cough, sneeze or do strenuous exercise, these muscles can become overworked or develop trigger points and tight bands which affects their ability to expand properly during breathing. The diaphragm breathing exercise mentioned above may also assist these intercostal muscles.
Intercostal Muscle Exercise for Breathing Difficulty
If a different area of your rib cage is not expanding properly, try lying with the “stuck” rib area facing towards the ceiling and doing some slow deep breaths concentrating on breathing into the affected area. Again 10 breaths once per day to start is plenty. Treatment wise we can do some cupping and massage around the rib area to assist with this expansion.
Accessory Breathing Muscles
The muscles around the front of the neck, front of the chest, some abdominal muscles and outside of the rib cage also play a role in assisting either the breath in or the breath out. Some of these muscles assist forced exhalation such as during a sneeze or cough, some assist to lift the rib cage to get more air into the lungs during heavy breathing when working out for example. One of the most common issues we see in the clinic, is the front of neck muscles overworking and causing breathing difficulty. These ones should only kick in to get a really deep breath but often we see them working with a regular gentle breath.
Front of Neck Relaxation Exercise for Breathing Difficulty
To test this, place your hand gentle on the at the front of your neck, just to the side of your wind pipe with fingertips facing towards and onto your collar bone. Take a deep breath and feel which muscles come into play. Now, take a gentle breath. If these same muscles are still working then start practicing keeping them relaxed during a gentle breath. To aid this, use the breathing techniques mentioned above once or twice a day. If you are a shallow breather or have head forward or rounded back posture, you may find this particularly difficult. Make sure you come in for some professional advice to get you working on the underlying causes.
Check out our instagram of facebook pages @myothrive for videos and pictures on how to do some of these exercises. We offer online and face-to-face consultations to help with pain and conditions of muscles, joints and nerves from head to toe! Here’s the link if you’d like to browse our availability and lock in a spot for yourself.
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