Breathing is something that I work on a lot with clients and try to help them realise how big an impact simply improving how you breathe can have on their energy levels and sense of well being. This is before we consider the impact that poor breathing habits can have with regards to headaches, neck pain and other problems in the upper body. Rather than breathing with the primary muscles of inhalation, the diaphragm and external intercostals, we use the accessory breathing muscles like the scalenes, sternocleidomastoid and pec minor rather than only asking them to help out when we really need them during exercise.
The diaphragm and the external intercostals are responsible for about 75% and 25% of the work respectively when we are breathing correctly at rest. The accessory muscles are those that help with inhalation when extra effort is required, the sternocleidomastiod, scalenes, serratus anterior and pectoralis minor, and are there to help lift the upper ribcage to allow for full expansion and as deep a breath as possible.
The muscles used when we exhale are the internal intercostals and transverse thoracis which alongside the effects of gravity. These are aided by the abdominal muscles including both obliques, transverse and rectus abdominis. These help by compressing the abdomen and forcing the diaphragm upward and again are only needed during hard breathing.
One of the issues that comes from using the accessory muscles to breathe during normal activity is that they get tired from being used for something they’re only supposed to help out with in emergencies. The impact of this is that they don’t or can’t do their primary job well. The primary role of the scalenes is that of moving the neck in flexion and rotation, sternocleiodomastiod to flex and rotate the neck, pec minor to draw the scapula forward and down, serratus anterior to rotate and protract the scapula. So we can see that they are all important in moving the neck and shoulder so adding in constant work from breathing will easily lead to fatigue and the potential for problems as a result.
In particular the scalenes and pec minor are implicated in Thoracic Outlet Syndrome which is a term used to describe where nerves and blood vessels get compressed by these muscles causing pain and numbness in the arm and upper back. Now you may not have the more severe symptoms that some get but some of the same issues can be occurring where there is decreased space for the different vessels that travel through the area and they may be implicated in the problem that you have.
If we consider that pain is an emotional response to sensory input to the brain and then in some ways with problems with breathing and the issues that may come from this we have a simple, easy first step in helping correct the problem. Through learning to breathe correctly we can allow the muscles of the shoulder girdle and neck that help out with breathing relax and get on with their main jobs and at the same time calm things down by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system. This simple exercise at the end of the article is a great start to improving how you breathe. Being more active through the day is also likely to help and whilst you still have to do your job,if you sit at a desk it is well worth taking mini breaks even simply standing up and stretching or walking around your desk can help.