Low Back Pain and Your Breath: There is a connection

People who suffer from low back pain are familiar with the effects – stiffness, shooting pain, weak core, difficulty sitting or standing for long periods, figuring out how to tie your own shoes etc.

Recently another side effect has come to light – the inability to take a full and healthy breath. I was inspired to write this by a question from an active, healthy 75 year old man who runs regularly and does yoga. He for the longest time has felt he cannot get a deep breath in. “Oh, and I have chronic low back pain,” he tells me. Aha!

A number of recent studies have found that those with a history of low back pain breathe more shallowly, hold their breath, or have dysfunctional breathing patterns when challenged to a physical task.

A healthy breath begins with the diaphragm falling, changing the volume of our chest cavity and squeezing our abdominal organs so that the abdomen naturally pushes out.

The intercostal muscles between the ribs allow the rib cage to expand like the handle of a bucket lifting up and out. Air fills our lungs (which you may be surprised to find out end above our collarbones) changing the pressure once again so that the diaphragm relaxes, abdomen relaxes, ribs fall and air is exhaled.

We don’t know exactly why a dysfunctional pattern of breathing is demonstrated by low back pain sufferers but there are a few hypotheses. Neurological control to the core musculature in people with low back pain is altered, delaying the activation of the core.

Holding the breath acts as a coping mechanism to increase trunk stability. In addition those with low back pain originating in the sacroiliac joint have been found to have impaired function of the diaphragm and the muscles of the pelvic floor, thought to be neurologically connected.

To feel the pattern of breath in your own body, take a seat and allow your breath to settle.  Place your hands on either side of your rib cage, wrapping around, below your chest. As you inhale imagine the ribs expanding 360 degrees and rising and falling in that bucket handle pattern.  Observe this for a while.

Next, place your hand on your abdomen. As you inhale allow the belly to expand, and as you exhale allow it to gently contract. In our society we don’t often allow ourselves the freedom to let our tummy hang out so this may be a foreign feeling. Observe this for a while. If you find you are struggling for breath in either of these poses you may be exhibiting altered breathing patterns – low back pain or not. To be certain, ask your healthcare provider at Qi Integrated Health Clinic to observe your breath. Breathing plays such an important role in our physical, mental, and emotional health that we want to get it right!

 Article prepared by: Dr. Robin Armstrong, Chiropractor, ART provider, Yoga Therapy