Breathing happens without us noticing it most of the time. But, in this coughing, cold air, winter allergy season, breathing can seem a difficult and painful action causing rib and back pain. Here’s the normal physiology of breathing, why it can cause pain, and how to treat and help prevent it.
Taking a breath is hard work
The act of drawing in a breath requires a contraction of your diaphragm muscle. The diaphragm separates your upper back and torso from lower back and abdomen. In your upper back and torso is housed your lungs and heart. When the diaphragm contracts it flattens down, sucking air into your lungs. The abdominal wall and pelvic floor muscles (QL, psoas, transverse abdominis, multifidi, and small support muscles) contract in response to the pressure in the abdomen to maintain support and keep you from peeing your pants! Remember that your whole body is connected. The pressure in your torso stiffens the spine by activating your spinal stabilization muscles and the diaphragm itself attaches onto your back vertebra. To exhale, you just relax the diaphragm and the air passively exits.
Breathing is often dysfunctional causing neck and back pain
This process habituates, meaning we create a pattern for ourselves to breathe so we don’t have to think about it. You might think we would naturally adopt the most efficient breathing pattern, but we don’t. Breathing is commonly dysfunctional causing spinal instability, joint restriction, and muscle/fascia pain. When dysfunctional, we compensate with “accessory breathing muscles,” tightening our neck, jaw, and shoulder structures. Conversely, other causes of spinal instability, joint restriction, and pain can cause breathing dysfunction.
Coughing, for example, pulls on these stabilization tissues and can cause strain, stress, and dysfunctional patterns. This can actually lower your oxygenation level and make you feel tired or decrease your exercise endurance. The ribs, which protect your lungs, can become stressed at the joints and strained in the muscles between the ribs (intercostal muscles) causing upper back (thoracic) or rib pain.
Treatment and prevention
Your Doctor of Chiropractic, Dr. Kuty, can teach you specific techniques to treat and prevent these injuries, decrease pain, and even help your cough. Getting a chiropractic adjustment can help restore the pattern of breathing, motion of the joints, and relax the surrounding muscles and fascia. Dr. Kuty can assist in teaching you diaphragmatic breathing exercises like lying on your back and breathing deeply with lower rib expansion, or, panting with a strong “ha, ha, ha.” Stretching and strengthening your core body muscles can assist too (try: side angle stretch, child’s pose, planks, and side bridges.)
Jolene Kuty, DC
Kuty Chirpractic 6634 E. Aster Dr. Scottsdale, AZ 85254