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Breathing for Less Back Pain

Did you know that you can start to manage your low back pain by learning how to breathe correctly? I could write for hours about breathing and its relationship to our physical and mental health (it's fascinating!), but let's start with some basic information.


Learning to breathe by correctly using our diaphragm is the start of gaining true control of our physical and mental health. Physically, when we breathe correctly, the diaphragm flattens when we inhale. This pushes our guts down into our abdomen and pelvis which expands both the abdominal wall and the pelvic floor. The result is increase intra-abdominal pressure. Intra-abdominal pressure is what creates stability in our core/trunk. When we breathe out, there is a gentle contraction of the pelvic floor and abdominals, which maintains this intra-abdominal pressure.

There is a rhythmic balance of intra-abdominal pressure as the diaphragm contracts (pushes down) and relaxes (elevates). This also creates rhythmic movement around some essential physical structures; the organs of our abdomen, our heart, our major vessels (aorta and vena cava), our esophagus, and the nerves of our autonomic nervous system (the vagus nerve, which I can also talk for hours about).

Because of this, diaphragmatic breathing is no only vital to our physical stability, but also vital to the function of our organs and therefore, our health. When we don't breathe well we risk digestive issues, high blood pressure, and more. Most notable, however, we greatly impede the function of our autonomic nervous system. This is the part of the nervous system that regulates our stress response. If you are not breathing well, you risk increasing your overall feelings of stress and anxiety.

This is why breathing is essential to both our physical and mental health.


Most of us do one or two things. The first is that most of us breathe into our chest instead of into our belly. We we do this, we don't utilize the strength of the diaphragm but rather use the accessory muscles of the chest and neck. People who do this are more likely to have neck pain. The second thing we do is HOLD our diaphragm to use it as a stabilizer, but in the wrong way. This also results in chest breathing. Long term, both of these result in a tight diaphragm and the feeling of not being able to take a deep belly breath (along with the stuff I mentioned above).

A lot of people don't breathe correctly. There are many things that can lead to this. One would be "skinny culture" and people always telling us to "suck it in." Other things include postural issues from prolonged desk work or specific sports activities (i.e. runners tend to have forward shoulders and head, which limited thoracic mobility and breathing function) and history of trauma (oh, another thing I can talk for hours about!). Trauma doesn't always have to be memorable or severe. Studies have shown that if your mother had a stressful event while you were in utero, that can affect your breathing pattern for the rest of your life.


Studies have shown that breathing can reduce low back pain. Interestingly, there have also been studies that show how improving thoracic mobility (upper back) can improve breathing function and subsequently improve function in those with low back pain.

Here are the steps I take when I see someone with low back pain OR any other person who I suspect has a breathing related injury or issue (I do treat people for stress and anxiety who do not have injuries or pain).

  1. Assess your breathing. If you are not breathing correctly, I first assess mobility. I want to make sure you have the diaphragm, rib, and thoracic mobility to take a deep breath. If these are limited, there are hands on techniques I can use to improve this. There are also techniques I can teach you to help you progress on your own!

  2. Teach you how to breathe. This not only involves teaching you how to use the diaphragm, but also how to engage the appropriate muscles on the exhale.

  3. Use your breathing. There are a couple of ways to use your breathing. One way is to progress the position. Our primal progression of moving (think of a baby) is from lying, to rolling, to crawling, to kneeling, to standing. So we practice breathing in all of those positions as you master the former. The second way we progress is to integrate breathing into movement (example below). Ultimately, you have not mastered any position or movement until you can breathe in that position or movement.

Diaphragmatic Breathing

Diaphragmatic Breathing with Isometric Hip Flexion

Like I said earlier, the importance of breathing well really apply to ANYONE that wants to move better, feel better, and perform better. Whether you have pain, anxiety, low energy, or something else that you'd rather not have, breathing is one of the most powerful tools we have to get healthy.

If you have questions or want your breathing assessed, schedule your discovery visit now!

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