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One of the simplest and most underused techniques for reducing low back pain is deep diaphragmatic breathing. Low back pain is estimated to affect between 80 and 95 percent of the population at some point in their lives. There are numerous possibilities why back pains develop, and our ability to use our diaphragm effectively plays a central role.
The diaphragm muscle rests just below the lungs and, like other muscles, it contracts to cause movement and can become weak when underused.
Even though the diaphragm is suppose to be the primary muscle for breathing, many people are unknowingly “chest breathers.” Chest breathers habitually under use their diaphragm and over use secondary breathing muscles, like those in the neck and the back.
Diaphragmatic breathing can help stop chronic back pain.
The first and most important reason diaphragmatic breathing can help stop chronic back pain is because the diaphragm is the foundation of the “core” musculature. When a person bends over and pulls a back muscle or slips a disc, it is commonly due to muscle imbalances that developed over time. Under using the diaphragm causes it to lose strength, forces other muscles to over work in its place, and can make the entire body compensate. If uncorrected for too long, one’s body becomes a walking time bomb for a back injury that many people inaccurately blame on an associated activity such as “lifting the groceries poorly,” or “bending over wrong.” What’s often wrong was not the activity itself, but the body that was performing the activity. In order to maintain a foundation for proper biomechanics, the diaphragm is perhaps the most important muscle a person can learn to use correctly.
Second, a strong diaphragm directly reduces strain and tension in any secondary muscles that have been overworking. Not only will this reduce tension in lower back muscles like the quadratus lumborum, but also it can drastically reduce tension in the neck and even reduce tension headaches.
Third, the diaphragm attaches directly to lumbar vertebrae, thus every deep diaphragmatic breath pulls on the bones of the lower back, which stimulates healing movement and blood flow around these bones and discs. A strong enough tug can even cause a spinal self-adjustment while regular deep breathing helps keep these bones in optimal alignment.
Fourth, diaphragmatic breathing acts as a gentle massage for the internal organs. If referred pain from organ discomfort is the cause of low back pain, stimulating internal movement can reduce those symptoms.
Fifth, but not least, is that diaphragmatic breathing is hard-wired to stimulate the de-stress (parasympathetic) mechanisms in your body. If the cause of one’s low back pain is stress related, slow diaphragmatic breathing offers an immediate solution.
Avoiding chronic chest breathing by learning to diaphragmatically breathe into the belly, ribs, and low back can often remove symptoms instantly. Here is a simple five-stage progression one can use to improve their breath work. Aim for ten repetitions once to three times every day, while consistently trying to increase the duration of inhalation.
1. Starting to learn is easiest when lying on your back. Place a small object, like a remote control, on your belly button and place your hands on the sides of your rib cage. As you inhale, your belly should rise and your ribs should expand first, before there is any rise in your chest. Simply let everything relax when you exhale. An easy place to start is while lying in bed before falling asleep.
2. Next, practice the same belly, ribs, and low back expansion when you are on hands and knees, trying to keep your spine from moving up or down.
3. Then, try the same belly, ribs, and low back inhalation when you are seated.
4. Practice diaphragmatic breathing while standing.
5. Finally, use diaphragmatic breathing while walking, exercising, and in any daily environment.
Breathing in and out through your nose is the best method for relieving stress and possibly for retaining better core connection throughout. How much time you practice depends on your enthusiasm and level of pain. Like other corrective exercises, there will likely be a learning curve of several days, weeks, or months before your diaphragm is strong and you master your new breathing. Diaphragmatic breathing can be done anywhere at anytime; the more often you practice, the stronger your diaphragm’s motor patterns will grow. Classic places to practice are sitting at stoplights, during commercials, and whenever you feel stressed. Your goal is to diaphragmatically breathe deeply and slowly as your regular breathing pattern, when you’re not thinking about it. As you re-teach your diaphragm in just a few repetitions per day, you will find that you correct muscle imbalances, improve posture, reduce stress, and maintain a pain free lower back.
James Goodlatte is the founder of Fit For Birth, Inc., and a Pre & Post Natal Holistic Health Coach. His passion is to heal families by inspiring the use of natural methods and by building a global team of fitness professionals to reduce infertility, avoid mechanized childbirth, and lower chronic disease in our infants. Fit For Birth provides continuing education courses for fitness and birth professionals, as well as various personal training and health coaching programs for pre and postnatal women.
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Photos were taken at Fitness Results NYC.
James Goodlatte is a Holistic Health Coach, corrective exercise practitioner, speaker, author, and professional educator. His passion is to heal families by inspiring the use of natural methods and by building a global team of fitness & health professionals to reduce infertility, avoid mechanized childbirth, and reduce chronic disease in our infants.