What happens when we breathe?
Breathing is an instinctual, cyclical action and a key mechanism that keeps us alive.
Each breath produces an increase and decrease of internal pressure that aids in the flow of air in and out of the lungs. The quality of each breath is determined by the dynamic properties of the chest and the inner unit musculature (as mentioned in Part 1).
So with that in mind, can we use the breath as a training tool to better manage our response to pain and injury?
Let’s begin by looking at the pattern of a natural breath.
As we breathe in, the intercostal muscles allow the ribs to expand upwards and outwards to accommodate the increasing air volume entering the lungs (Fig 1). To further increase the chest cavity volume on this inhale, the diaphragm also moves in a downward trajectory, causing a further expansion of the trunk.
On the exhale, the system recoils: the intercostal muscles relax and the space within the chest cavity is reduced. The diaphragm also relaxes and rises back up into the chest cavity. At this point in the cycle the process is ready to repeat again.
Breathing is an involuntary mechanism which means that we can do it without thinking too much about the mechanics of it all.
That being said, we have the ability to consciously control the rhythmic nature and the quality of our breath through specific meditative practices and mobility training. With repetitive reinforcement, this work improves our involuntary breathing patterns and may produce subsequent benefits that improve sleep, decrease pain and manage stress levels.
What does this all have to do with massage?
Let’s use generalised back pain as an example. If it’s something you’ve experienced before, how would you describe the muscular sensations associated with back pain:
Stiff, tight, unable to move areas of the back as freely as you normally would?
Oftentimes back pain is an underlying ticking time bomb. It might not manifest into noticeable pain every single day, but there’s enough of a dull, stiff or uncomfortable sensation there to suggest that at some point, the slightest unexpected movement is going to kick off a chain of noticeable and frankly inconvenient pain.
You can do one of two things here:
- Absolutely nothing. Live with the impending panic and hope nothing happens. It’s a popular choice but there are better ways to improve the situation.
- Enter option 2: building resiliency by improving the dynamic quality of your inner unit musculature. By building movement into dormant movement patterns, will create more resilient tissues that are better equipped to deal with the load required from general day to day activities
Granted, this option will demand more effort than option 1 but it has greater long-term success in managing and improving your back problems.
And it all starts with the breath.
The breath and back pain
Here’s a little exercise for you to try out: take a Theraband or yoga strap and wrap it around your waist. Tighten the band enough so that there’s a little bit of resistance, but not so much that you’re struggling to breathe (Fig. 2).
Next, take a natural inhale and focus your attention on the band: where does the band expand, if it expands at all? Are you breathing from the chest? Is the belly expanding? What about the sides of the waist, are they doing anything? Is the back moving?
Repeat this exercise a couple of times breathing in and out through the nose. Are there any areas of rigidity that don’t move with ease?
Ideally all 360 degrees of the trunk will expand and contract like a corset, while the chest cavity will simultaneously expand and recoil.
With this exercise in mind, reflect on the issues associated with your own experiences of back pain. Could there be a link between the tightening sensations you feel in your back and the actual inability of the muscles to move freely?
Now think about your daily activities. The body is a remarkably efficient system that conserves energy if it doesn’t need to use it. By repeating the same movements day in day out, the body inhibits any unnecessary energy if there’s no stimulus there to react to.
Are you finding ways to vary your movement patterns each day?
By improving your breath you can actively train the muscles of the chest and inner unit to work more effectively, which then stimulates the body and provides a purposeful reason to move the areas of your back that don’t move as optimally as they should do.
Massage and back pain
And herein lies one of the fundamental benefits of massage specifically in relation to back pain. The slow, deep soft tissue work within a session of massage will coax the muscles out of their habitual rigidity and provide ease of movement that facilitates a deeper and better quality breath.
This is achieved by providing an environment that allows the parasympathetic nervous system to take over and the rhythm of the breath is slowed down. The inhales and exhales are deeper and demand more activation of the muscles involved in breathing.
It’s a nice stepping stone to then allow you to practice a daily breath-focused practice of your choice: meditation, gentle mobility work or yoga are just a few examples.
If those stiff back muscles are constantly receiving quality movement stimuli with every breath cycle, imagine the extra movement your back will receive over the following hours, days and months just from improving how you breath in and out! Using this concept as a foundation for further movement, now imagine how much more responsive your body will be when you add exercise into the mix.
Quality breath + varied movement patterns = a great foundation to start managing chronic back pain.
And massage can act as a gentle nudge to get this process underway.
Due to the quietly unassuming and involuntary mechanics of breathing, it’s easy to take this fundamental practice for granted. By taking a couple of minutes each day to focus on the rhythm and quality of your breath, you might notice that there are aspects of your breathing mechanics that would benefit from a little bit of focused training.
You might find that this small attention to detail may just hold the key to improving your chronic back pain.
Why not make a start today? Book your appointment with me and let’s get the ball rolling!