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The Diaphragm’s Role in Breathing

a photo of a man behind text of the diaphragms role in breathing

This blog post was written by Jacob Hardy, a Core Physical Therapy PT who specializes in breathing disorders.

When most of us think about breathing we typically conjure up an image of the lungs dutifully expanding and contracting to facilitate the flow of air. While it is true that the lungs play a central role in this vital process by facilitating gas exchange, they are not self-sufficient in their respiratory duties. The lungs rely on the unsung hero of the body, a muscle that essentially orchestrates the breath. This muscle is the diaphragm.

Most of us are vaguely aware of the diaphragm’s existence, picturing a flat sheet of tissue nestled just below the lungs. However, the truth about the diaphragm is far more intriguing, complex, and crucial than most of us might imagine.

The diaphragm is not merely a flat piece of tissue, it is an active, dynamic dome shaped muscle that is the primary driver for breathing. The broad multiplanar muscle separates the chest cavity from the abdominal cavity, attaches to the lower ribs, sternum and spine creating a continuous system from front to back.

When you inhale, your diaphragm contracts pulling downward. This action increases the volume of the thoracic cavity creating lower air pressure than outside the body. As a result, air rushes into the lungs creating the environment needed for gas exchange. During exhalation the diaphragm relaxes and pushes up into the chest cavity again expelling the air from the lungs with the help of other chest and ribcage muscles.

This process works all day every day without fail. Until we run into an issue. As we age there are a variety of factors that can affect how the diaphragm operates. A few of the most common are tension around the rib cage resulting from posture, injury or surgery, inhibition of the diaphragm resulting from tension, not activating the muscle properly due to tension in the abdomen either conscious or unconscious, or nervous system tension from injury, anxiety or over breathing. All these factors can lead to a diaphragm that does not contract and relax fully thereby altering the mechanics of our breath and shutting down all the benefits of a healthy breathing pattern.

So, to avoid this pattern of dysfunctional breathing and inhibited diaphragm, try making a conscious effort every day to spend at least 5-10 minutes breathing. But instead of just breathing make sure you breathe deep into your belly, moving your shoulders and chest as little as possible. This is what good diaphragmatic breath looks like. If you are having trouble with this, try putting a book or small weight on your stomach and focus on lifting the weight with your breath as you breathe in and lowering it slowly when you exhale.

This is a great start to getting your diaphragm active and working again. If you need additional assistance with getting your diaphragm activated or want to get a little better with the breath, make an appointment with me today and we will work together to make a plan that is right for you.

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