Your Diaphragm: The Key to Healthy Breathing

African-American Yogi sitting in Lotus Pose and meditation with closed eyes at an outdoor nature set

All muscles have their purpose, but few are critical for survival. One muscle you can’t live without is your diaphragm. Shaped like an umbrella at rest, your diaphragm flattens as it contracts, pulling air into your lungs so you can breathe—approximately 22,000 times a day!

What Does Your Diaphragm Do?

Diaphragm muscle as body ribcage dome muscular system outline diagram.

When you developed from a bunch of cells into a human, your diaphragm formed from the same tissues surrounding your heart, esophagus, and anterior core.  Your diaphragm is complex and serves not only as a divider of lungs and heart from the stomach but helps your nervous system communicate important bodily functions to your brain.

All systems of the body communicate through fascia. Because of its location and function, the fascia that forms your diaphragm is an important player in your overall health.

Your diaphragm controls your breath (automatic or controlled), and allows you to spit, vomit, defecate, urinate, swallow and talk. It influences metabolic balance, cardiovascular health, and stimulates venous and lymphatic return. Your diaphragm helps stabilize your core so you can walk and move your limbs and works in synergy with the muscles of your back, abdominals, and pelvic floor to maintain your posture, shape, and intra-abdominal pressure (important for spinal and visceral health).

How Your Diaphragm Affects Your Nervous System

The diaphragm functions in breathing illustration

Because of the influence your nervous system has on your diaphragm and your diaphragm on your nervous system and physiology, the way you breathe can change the way you feel. Research continues to support controlled breathing techniques to influence nervous system regulation, heart rate variability, and psychological flexibility.

If you could implement a few daily exercises to improve your posture, physiology, and your sense of well-being, wouldn’t you want to do them? What if I told you all you have to do is breathe?! You don’t have to go anywhere, buy anything or prepare your surroundings to exercise your diaphragm. You just have to breathe — slowly, deeply, and through your nose.

“There is arguably no other muscle in the human body that is so central literally and figuratively to our physical, biochemical, and emotional health as the diaphragm. From its obvious role in respiration to its less obvious roles in postural stability, spinal decompression, fluid dynamics, visceral health, and emotional regulation, the diaphragm has a repertoire of function that is broad by any muscle’s standard.” — Matt Wallden DO, ND

Breathing is Not So Simple

3D illustration background of jellyfish. Diaphragm breathing is like a jellyfish

Though the act of breathing diaphragmatically sounds simple, it really isn’t for most people. Many people with back and shoulder pain demonstrate a dysfunctional breathing pattern. Often, musculoskeletal pain has a direct impact on breathing, and non-optimal breathing influences pain. It can be a nasty cycle.

Types of dysfunctional breathing include apical (chest) breathing, mouth breathing, reverse breathing (where the chest inflates with the inhalation and the belly expands with the exhalation), and others.

Without going into detail on the side effects of dysfunctional breathing, know that poor breathing patterns have compound effects on physiology, not to mention the physical strain on your muscles. The muscles in your neck, shoulders, and even your back are considered accessory breathing muscles and are meant to kick in only when you exert yourself and need to pull in more air. Not when you are at rest. If you overuse these muscles during relaxed breathing, it makes sense you won’t feel relaxed when you breathe!

Sound exhausting? If you begin to appreciate the relationship between your body, mind, and breath, you can begin to untangle and address the underlying factors that may contribute to or perpetuate what ails you.  Why not start by improving the way you breathe? It’s free, and it’s natural.

How to Use Your Diaphragm for Healthy Breathing

Peaceful senior woman in Lotus Pose and meditation with closed eyes at home while sitting on yoga mat on floor, practicing Diaphragm breathing.

Learning to breathe more efficiently in the early stages of rehab can have an immediate and profound effect on both the musculoskeletal and the nervous systems. And taking time each day to think about and practice diaphragmatic breathing is well worth your time.

Here are a few tips for improving the quality of your breathing by utilizing your diaphragm fully.

  1. Sit or lie comfortably with one hand on your chest and the other on your belly. (Comfort is important here, so take time to get into a position where you can relax.)
  2. Release tension from your face, jaw, and the muscles in your neck and shoulders. You may try rolling your shoulders, dimming the lights, or propping your arms up if needed, so you feel at ease.
  3. Inhale slowly through your nose and guide your breath deeply into your lungs. As you draw your breath inward, allow your belly to rise into your hand and attempt to keep the hand on your chest from moving (or moving much).
  4. Repeat for 1 to 5 minutes 2 to 3 times a day to start.

Breathing diaphragmatically is a three-dimensional experience. Your entire ribcage into your back expands as your lungs inflate and deflate. It is a multi-system experience for all the reasons I listed above.

Diaphragmatic Breathing for Optimal Health

If you struggle to breathe well for whatever reason, investigate why. Where do you feel limited? What prevents you from breathing more deeply? How does focusing on your breathing make you feel? Are there any adjustments you can make to improve the depth and quality of your breath?

The simple act of diaphragmatic breathing can be an excellent starting point for the optimal mind-body health we all strive to attain.

Reprinted with permission from Christine Carr & Two Rivers Physical Therapy and Wellness.
christine carr

Christine Carr, c-IAYT, eRYT 500 has been a physical therapist for over 20 years.  In her youth, she was constantly hurting herself. This motivated her to learn how to recover from injury and heal herself, naturally.   She loves to learn.  Studying the human body, and mind and how they function together is exciting to her.  She has a diverse academic background with experience that includes orthopedics, yoga, and functional medicine.  She enjoys teaching others how to recover from injury, manage their condition, and improve their function and performance.  

Christine enjoys any and all sports available in this beautiful area or kicking back with a good book in her spare time.  She has recently started gardening, though she said she has much to learn!

  1. J Multidiscip Healthc|Anatomic connections of the diaphragm: influence of respiration on the body system by Bruno Bordoni and Emiliano Zanier
  2. J Pain Res | The effect of diaphragm training on lumbar stabilizer muscles: a new concept for improving segmental stability in the case of low back pain by Regina Finta, Edit Nagy, and Tamás Bender
  3. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies | The diaphragm — More than an inspired design by Matt Wallden
  4. Cureus | The Fascial Breath by Bruno Bordoni, Marta Simonelli, and Bruno Morabito
  5. European Respiratory Journal |The earliest history of diaphragm physiology by J-Ph. Derenne, A. Debru, A.E. Grassino and W.A. Whitelaw
  6. Arq Bras Cardiol |Effect of diaphragmatic breathing on heart rate variability in ischemic heart disease with diabetes by Kulur AB, Haleagrahara N, Adhikary P, and Jeganathan PS
  7. Manual Therapy | Changes in pelvic floor and diaphragm kinematics and respiratory patterns in subjects with sacroiliac joint pain following a motor learning intervention: a case series by O’Sullivan PB, and Beales DJ

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