Healthypedia
Lillian Wilson

The Power of Deep Breathing: Enhancing Posture and Alleviating Back Pain

Explores the connection between breathing and posture, and the benefits of deep breathing in improving your posture and alleviating back pain.

breathing and posture for health tips

The phrase ‘sit up straight’ will be familiar to many of us, whether we heard it at school, from our parents or simply from our posture-conscious friends.

Although having a good posture is beneficial for our health, many people tend to spend their juvenile years sitting in front of a computer and at desks studying, and working in the same position in later life. In fact, 80% of modern jobs are sedentary. This poses a huge burden on the posture and spine causing upper body stiffness and neck and back pain. Thus, 73% of UK citizens are unsatisfied with their posture.

While there are different methods of curing bad posture, practising breathing exercises is one of the most effective ways of improving posture. It’s free too!

What is the connection between breathing and posture?

Breathing and posture are interconnected and mutually influence each other. When a person’s posture is healthy and straight, the diaphragm is not suppressed by the abdomen and can function properly. Try to sit in a forward head posture (see the picture below) and you will notice that when breathing in this position you are mostly utilising your upper chest and the diaphragm does not have enough space to move freely.

Incorrect,Posture,Concept.,Man,Sitting,At,Office,Table

When we are not able to use organs for their original function, our body finds a compromise and substitutes diaphragmatic breathing with upper-chest breathing.

Regular deep breathing, which utilises the diaphragm, has numerous benefits including stress reduction, improved cardiovascular health, stronger lungs, and better cognitive performance. However, due to bad posture, chest breathing makes us take shallow breaths, which can weaken lung muscles and cause tension in the upper body.

As a result of deep breathing, the diaphragm muscle and intercostal muscles are activated, which lifts the rib cage and expands the chest cavity, thus lengthening the spine and preventing pressure in the spine. Eventually, this improves the spine’s ability to move and twist, reinforces natural curves, improves head and shoulder position, and leads to better posture by reducing tension in the upper body.

Several studies have affirmed that incorrect breathing mechanics can negatively impact the position of both the head and shoulder blades. One study investigated the influences of mouth and nose breathing patterns. The results showed that school children that were breathing through their mouths had a predisposition to structural modifications that may lead to the development of forward head posture and scapular winging.

Six benefits of deep breathing: breath your way to better posture and reduced back pain

It is estimated that up to 80% of the adult population will experience at least one episode of back pain throughout their life.

80% of the adult population will experience at least one episode of back pain throughout their life Source: PubMed

You may ask ‘How is it connected to breathing?’ The answer is that the way we breathe directly affects how badly something can hurt. Disordered breathing amplifies painful feelings and goes beyond affecting postural control and muscle tension.

Researchers found that a lot of people who experienced pain also had problems with their breathing. They studied 111 patients who were seeking treatment for pain relief and found that more than half of them were breathing improperly. Almost 90% of these patients had experienced pain in different parts of their body such as the head, neck, back, buttocks, leg or arm.

Here are the six major postural benefits of deep diaphragmatic breathing.

1Diaphragmatic breathing promotes spine stability and relieves back pain

Postural stability depends on breathing and vice versa. Proper breathing helps maintain good posture and a healthy, stable core.

In 2018, scientists in South Korea did a study to see if breathing exercises can help people with lower back pain. They found that people with instability in their lower spine often have pain when doing simple activities like walking and sitting. This affects the muscles in their trunk, leading to abnormal muscle patterns and excessive use of other supporting muscles. The study involved 27 adults, who were assigned to either a breathing exercise or a torso stabilization exercise group. The breathing group learned how to avoid holding their breath and did exercises to improve their diaphragmatic breathing. At the end of the study, the breathing group showed significant improvements in the mobility of their sternum and ribs, which allowed for better posture and stronger abdominal muscles.

2Breathwork helps to eliminate chronic neck pain

Poor breathing can cause neck pain because the way we breathe affects how our neck and spine work. When we breathe incorrectly, we use small muscles in the neck, instead of allowing the chest to expand naturally. This causes a strain on the upper spine and neck muscles, which can lead to pain. About 10 to 20% of the population experience neck pain each year, which may be connected to poor breathing.

Up to 20% of the population experience neck pain each year Source: PubMed

In a 2014 study, researchers looked at people with chronic neck pain before and after doing a 30-minute breathing exercise. They watched how the muscles in the neck moved when the participants breathed normally and deeply. After the breathing exercise, pain and muscle activity decreased significantly. The study proves that breathing exercises can help people breathe better and expand their chest, which can help them move their necks more easily. This happens because the diaphragm works better or because other muscles don’t have to work as hard.

3Proper breathing relieves neck pain better than massage

On average people spend 6 hours 58 minutes a day staring at the screens of phones, tablets and laptops. This results in a forward head posture and makes the neck stiff and painful. Bad posture makes us utilise the upper chest for breathing, which puts additional pressure on neck muscles and causes stiffness.

In a study, researchers found that all participants with back or neck pain had low ETCO₂. Low ETCO₂ is a sign of breathing pattern disorders because it shows low levels of blood CO₂, which is connected to hyperventilation. Massage and exercises were not successful at relieving pain. However, after practising breathing pattern retraining, all of them experienced improvements in neck and back pain. About 93% of the participants experienced clinically significant changes.

4Breathing exercises lead to reduced muscle and joint pain caused by work stress

Practising mindful, deep breathing prevails over any other way to ease stress.  No wonder, it is also considered an ace when it comes to relieving muscle and joint pain caused by stress at the workplace.

A study found a connection between work-related muscle and joint pain and job stress. When people hyperventilate, they lose too much CO₂ and their body reacts by tensing up muscles. Chronic over-breathing causes stress on the neck and shoulders, leading to neck and shoulder pain. By providing breath work education as a part of workplace benefits, employers can really help workers cope with stress.

5Practising breath work helps to improve a forward head posture

Forward head posture is a common type of posture for modern people. It happens when your head leans forward and away from your shoulders and can be caused by spending too much time in front of a computer screen or having nasal congestion. This can lead to pain in your neck and back.

When your head is pushed forward, some muscles in your neck become weak, while others become too tense. Some people develop this posture as children because of breathing problems, which can lead to poor airway development and affect their breathing and posture as adults. Others start breathing through their mouth because of respiratory conditions, which can make them push their head forward to breathe better.

One study looked at the effect of a therapeutic program combined with respiratory exercises on smartphone users with neck pain and forward head posture. 60 patients were randomly assigned to a routine therapeutic program, a combination of respiratory exercises and a routine therapeutic program, or a control group. The results showed that the combined group had significant differences compared to the therapeutic group in diaphragm muscle activation, respiratory balance, and the number of breaths. All of these outcomes positively affect posture and pain relief.

Close-up,Of,A,Woman's,Hands,On,Her,Chest,While,Doing

6Breathing exercises might treat scoliosis

Around 4 out of 100 people have scoliosis which is a sideways curvature of the spine. Depending on the stage, it can cause discomfort, pain, and other problems. Severe scoliosis can affect a person’s breathing and heart function.

Katharina Schroth, a teenager living in Germany in the early 1900s, was diagnosed with scoliosis. Back then, the condition had no cure, so most kids who suffered from extreme cases would spend their lives in bed or in wheelchairs. However, Katharina was of a different opinion. She trained herself in a breathing technique called ‘orthopaedic breathing’ which she believed could expand her skeletal structure and straighten her spine. After five years of practice, she effectively cured herself of scoliosis and began teaching the technique to other patients with severe cases of the disease. Despite criticism from the medical community, she continued to expand her lungs and improve her breathing and form throughout her life, and her techniques are still used today.

Breathing exercises to relieve back pain and improve posture

As you can see, practising deep diaphragmatic breathing can really ease and treat spine, neck and back pain. So if you are unfortunate to suffer any of these, try out the three breath works that make you use your diaphragm for a healthy and strong posture.

1. Breath deep

‘Breath Deep’ is a breathing exercise from the breathing program ‘The Oxygen Advantage’ by Patrick McKeown. With this program, you will be able to retrain your breathing and reconnect with your autonomic nervous system as well as the chemistry and mechanics of your body. The ‘Breath Deep’ exercise improves posture and breathing mechanics by promoting diaphragmatic breathing.

Procedure

1. Sit up straight.

2. Place your hands on both sides of your lower ribs.

3. Inhale quietly, allowing the air to penetrate your lungs deeply. When you inhale, your ribs will expand and move outward, and when you exhale, they will move inward.

4. Take fuller breaths but less frequently. You will feel your ribs expand and move outward when you inhale, and inward when you exhale.

5. You don’t need to hear yourself breathe during this exercise.

6. Practice the exercise for approximately four minutes.

2. 4-7-8 breathing exercise

This breathwork was inspired by yogic breathing techniques called pranayama. By targeting diaphragmatic breathing, this exercise is especially beneficial for posture improvement.

Procedure

1. While counting to four inhale.

2. Then recite one to seven holding your breath.

3. Exhale through your mouth for eight counts.

4. Repeat as many times as it is comfortable, till you feel tranquillity and stress relief.

3. Box breathing

Box breathing is a 4-4-4 breathwork that makes you inhale for four seconds, hold your breath for four seconds and then exhale for the same amount of time. This exercise is one of the easiest to do, but not only does it positively influence posture but also helps to control hyperventilation, lowers blood pressure, makes you calm and relaxed, releases stress and anxiety as well as improves sleep quality.

Procedure

1. To start, take a slow breath in for a count of four and feel the air entering your lungs.

2. Hold your breath for four seconds without inhaling or exhaling.

3. Slowly exhale through your mouth for four seconds.

4. Repeat these steps from 1 to 3 times until you feel calm, cool and put together.

Let’s summarise

A good posture is not just about looking confident, it’s about taking care of your body and preventing pain and discomfort. With the majority of modern jobs being sedentary, it’s more important than ever to be mindful of your posture and take action to improve it. Breathing exercises are a simple, free, and effective way to improve your posture and reduce back pain. By practising deep diaphragmatic breathing exercises discussed in this article, you can promote spine stability, eliminate chronic neck pain, reduce muscle and joint pain caused by work stress, improve a forward head posture, and even potentially treat scoliosis. So take a deep breath and commit to incorporating these breathing exercises into your daily routine. Your body will thank you for it!

Not enough? Here is more

‘Breath Cure’ by Patrick McKeown is an essential guide to understanding the power of breath and how it can transform your health and well-being. With practical exercises and insightful advice, this book will help you unlock the full potential of your breathing and optimize your physical and mental performance.

The Breathing Cure Book Cover Patrick McKeown

Healthypedia FAQ

Breathing and posture are interconnected and mutually influence each other. Proper posture allows the diaphragm to function properly, and regular deep breathing, which utilizes the diaphragm, can improve posture by reducing tension in the upper body.

Deep diaphragmatic breathing promotes spine stability, relieves back pain, eliminates chronic neck pain, and helps reduce muscle and joint pain caused by work stress.

Breathing exercises can help people breathe better and expand their chest, which can help them move their necks more easily. This could happen because the diaphragm works better or because other muscles don't have to work as hard.

Breathing exercises can help improve a forward head posture by activating the diaphragm muscle and intercostal muscles, which lift the rib cage and expand the chest cavity, thus lengthening the spine and preventing pressure in the spine.

Breathing exercises alone may not cure scoliosis, but they can be used in conjunction with other treatments to improve posture and relieve pain. There have been reports of individuals who have successfully treated their scoliosis with breathing exercises, such as the orthopaedic breathing technique developed by Katharina Schroth.

Some recommended breathing exercises to improve posture include Breath Deep, the 4-7-8 breathing exercise, and box breathing. These exercises promote diaphragmatic breathing and can help relieve pain, improve posture, and reduce stress and anxiety.

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