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Breathing and Low Back Pain – How They Are Related

Low back pain affects around 80% of all adults in their lifetime and is one of the most common reasons a person seeks medical help. As a chiropractor, low back pain is the number one complaint that I treat. Most often, the back pain that I treat is related to de-conditioning and bad movement patterns that the person has developed over their lifetime.

Oftentimes the de-conditioning of a person’s body is related to the increasingly sedentary nature of our culture here in the United States. The longer a person sits, the less and less the core musculature is required to activate and stabilize the body and the spine. This inactivation of the core can eventually progress to the point that it affects the way a person breathes.

Do this experiment. In a seated position, place your hands on your lap and sit up straight in a relaxed position. Now take a deep, relaxed breath in and let it out. Did your shoulders move up towards your ears? Did your chest flare outwards? If you are like most people, when you take in a deep breath your shoulders will move up towards your ears and your chest will flare out some. This is a sign that you are activating your accessory respiration muscles to breath instead of your core muscles.

Deep abdominal breathing is key to activating the core abdominal muscles and providing support for your lower back. Whenever a patient comes into my clinic and I’ve finished evaluating and adjusting them, the first thing I do is teach them how to breathe deep into their abdomen.

The way I teach this is by having the patient lay on their back with their legs bent and feet on the table. I have them place their hands on their stomach just above the navel. I have them imagine that they have a long straw running from their mouth down to their stomach and on the end of the straw is a balloon that they want to blow up. Then I instruct them to take a deep breath in and focus on pushing their hands toward the ceiling. I will have them repeat this 3-5 times and then I will have them move their hands from the top of their stomach towards the sides of their stomach. This time when they breathe deeply, they will focus on moving their hands outwards towards the side instead of straight up.

This is the harder of the two positions because the transversus abdominis muscle that runs laterally along the stomach to the back is harder to activate. I will have the patient perform 3-5 breathes focusing on pushing their hands out towards the side. I recommend that they perform this exercise daily in the morning and the evening at the very least, more often if possible.

With consistent practice, a person can “wake up” these core muscles again and gain the much need support for their lower back that they need. This added support will go a long way in helping to prevent further back pain.