We have two ways to breathe – with our neck and shoulders and with our diaphragm. With the first method we use our neck and shoulder muscles to raise our ribcage allowing the lungs to expand and air to flow in; with the second we contract the diaphragm – an up-domed flat muscle across the bottom of the ribcage – allowing the lungs to expand downwards. When under stress or exertion we use both to maximize oxygen intake.
Diaphragm breathing has several advantages: it is very energy efficient and uses more of your lung capacity; it helps blood and lymph circulation; and it is relaxing. Neck and shoulder breathing can become a habit with some undesirable consequences: neck and shoulder muscles become tight causing pain and headaches; the head is pulled forward leading to jaw tension and TMJ problems; and tension on the neck vertebrae can cause nerve compression with symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome.
How do you breathe? Chances are you unconsciously breathe with the neck and shoulders. To find out, lie on the floor and place one hand on your chest, the other on your belly. If your chest hand moves you are breathing with your neck and shoulders. Practice breathing so your belly hand moves out with your in-breath and in with the out-breath. If you tire quickly, you need to strengthen your diaphragm.
To strengthen your diaphragm, lie on the floor and place a sandbag or other soft weight on your belly between your belly button and lower ribs. A one pound bag of rice works well. Practice breathing to lift the bag softly and slowly with the in-breath. Keep your other hand on the chest and stop the breath when it starts to move. As you exhale let the bag assist you as it sinks in towards your spine. Take 10 bag-assisted breaths, then remove the bag and follow with 10 relaxed normal breaths. Start slowly and increase the repetitions as your diaphragm strength improves until you can comfortably repeat 3 cycles each morning and bedtime.
By re-learning to breathe with your diaphragm you will give your neck, shoulder and jaw muscles a much needed rest. You may be surprised at what symptoms disappear and how much better you feel.
I learned this breathing technique at a recent massage therapy course by Doug Alexander who taught the treatment of jaw pain and TMJ dysfunction with massage.