Are you Breathing Properly? Proper Breathing is the Key to Healthy Living

By Melissa Barrett, PT, DPT, at Melissa Barrett Physical Therapy & Yoga


“Drop your shoulders”, “Don’t let your shoulders be your earrings”, “Relax your chest and shoulders”……these are the cues that many of us with neck, back, and shoulder pain may hear from a medical provider.  However, elevated shoulders are not something that could just be released down with increased awareness.  Why not? Because elevated shoulders are the result of improper breathing. If you are a chest breather (incorrect) instead of a belly breather (correct) than you need to elevate your shoulders in order to get air into your lungs. Unfortunately, modern life has caused many of us to lose the ability to use our main breathing muscle, the diaphragm, to breathe.  Instead, we use our shoulders, upper chest, neck and back muscles to inhale, creating a shallow and rapid breathing pattern and elevated shoulders.

We were born with the inherent ability to breathe with our diaphragm. If you watch a baby or child breath, you will notice their belly moving in and out as it fills and releases with air. As we age, the ability to breath properly starts to diminish with prolonged sitting, poor posture, increased stress, and chronic pain. When people use their upper body to inhale, also known as an improper breathing pattern, a vicious cycle of pain and dysfunction are created.  Poor posture contributes to improper breathing and improper breathing contributes to poor posture.  Both scenarios set you up for chronic back, shoulder, and neck pain which increases stress and changes posture, keeping the cycle going.


How do we break the cycle?

Learning how to breathe diaphragmatically, sometimes called belly breathing, can help to break the negative cycle discussed above. Breathing directly affects our central nervous system.  Diaphragmatic breathing gives you access to your parasympathetic nervous system which is the “down regulator” of the central nervous system and helps you to de-stress, lower blood pressure and decrease heart rate.  Deep breathing gives you the ability to downregulate.  Improper breathing known as shallow neck and upper chest breathing is interpreted by the central nervous system as a cue to amplify the sympathetic (“fight or flight”) nervous system to create a high alert, increased stressed state as well as higher blood pressure and increased heart rate.  Upper chest breathing can promote a chronic state of increased stress that can exacerbate pain and is deleterious to long-term health.

 “Take a deep breath”!

Place one hand on your belly and one hand on your chest. Take a deep breath by feeling your belly expand with air as you breathe in and deflate as you breath out while your hand on your chest does not move. Deep breathing can elicit a relaxation response in as little as 90 seconds. That is why breathing is the common denominator of all mind-body practices.  A daily practice of deep belly breathing can decrease stress and increase awareness.  Increased awareness allows us to be more in tune with how we are moving and the sensations that we are feeling, therefore, enhancing our ability to interpret movements as harmful before we get injured.

Diaphragmatic breathing can be practiced in many positions.  3 positions where you can practice diaphragmatic breathing include: laying on your belly, laying on your back, or sitting in a chair.  Watch the video below for more tips on how to breathe properly.

Therefore, next time someone tells you to relax your shoulders, think about taking a proper deep breath and you will feel your shoulders relax. This may be the key to taking away that chronic pain that you have been experiencing. 

In order to learn more about your body and if you are breathing properly, you should visit a physical therapist for an evaluation and assessment. You can now see a physical therapist without a prescription from a doctor via direct access. You can find Melissa Barrett Physical Therapy & Yoga along with hundreds of other clinics on the BetterPT website and mobile app. Proper Breathing is a necessity and the key to healthy living. Don’t wait to start breathing better, book an appointment today.

Dr. Melissa Barrett is the owner of Melissa Barrett Physical Therapy & Yoga, and has over 15 years of physical therapy treatment experience. Dr. Barrett is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and has a Master’s degree in Public health.

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