Have you ever caught yourself holding your breath? Perhaps you find yourself tensing through your neck and shoulders from time to time. Breathing is a fundamental component of your overall health and wellness. Every system in the body relies heavily on oxygen to be able to function, including the musculoskeletal system. But are you breathing as effectively as you possibly can?

What is Dysfunctional Breathing?

Dysfunctional breathing incorporates any breathing style that circulates oxygen in an inefficient or inappropriate way. When this occurs, the body lacks the ability to effectively adapt based on the body’s ever-changing needs. Ineffective breathing is demonstrated in a variety of forms including:

  • Excessive Mouth Breathing 
  • Breathing Pattern Disorders
  • Hyperventilation Disorders
  • Vocal Cord Dysfunctions

One of the most common styles of dysfunctional breathing is known as accessory breathing. Identified by shallow breaths and reduced rib expansion, additional muscles are required to expand the lungs further. The accessory muscles of respiration include the pectoral, scalenes, sternocleidomastoid (SCM), abdominal and quadratus lumborum muscles, located at the front of the chest, neck, abdomen and low back. Ordinarily, these muscles would be recruited when the body needs additional oxygen such as during exercise or when playing a musical instrument. However in most cases, this ineffective breathing pattern occurs as a result of environmental factors, cultural expectations and/or stress. This chain of events results in inhaling air through the mouth and holding your breath, therefore taking less air into the body.

Figure 1: Respiratory Muscles
Consequences of Dysfunctional Breathing

When we allow our breathing to decline, we are setting ourselves up for failure. Not only can these unconscious and unhealthy patterns be reflected in other breathing-related disorders, but it can also have widespread impressions on the body as a whole. The first signs and symptoms of these patterns may include:

  • Breathing discomfort or breathlessness
  • Frequent sighing
  • Irregular breathing 
  • Unexplained coughing
  • Inability to take a deep or satisfying breath
  • Numbness and/or tingling
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue 
  • Anxiety and/or panic attacks

Many of the indicators above go unnoticed for substantial lengths of time, creating a greater susceptibility to aggravate pre-existing conditions, prolong healing times and create serious illnesses such as:

  • Asthma and Chronic Respiratory Conditions
  • Sleep Apnoea
  • Anxiety Disorders
  • Chronic Pain/Fatigue Syndrome
  • Overtraining (athletes)

Additionally, other factors can play a role in creating poor habitual patterns. The cyclical state of stress is one of them. Just as stress can cause you to take shorter, sharper breaths, the act of shallow breathing can inadvertently cause a build up of stress and tension in the body. This process creates a catalyst for the following changes:

  • Postural imbalances (slumped/slouched positioning)
  • Lack of core stability 
  • Muscle dysfunction (headaches, neck pain, increased risk of injury)
  • Autonomic nervous system dysfunction (primes your body for activity and response – fight or flight mode)
  • Sleep disruption
  • Circulation and/or digestion issues
  • Mood swings

Whether it is directly or indirectly, dysfunctional breathing has the ability to impact the whole body. Although ailments may appear in all facets of the body, we must treat the primary cause in order for the body to regulate and heal itself.

Figure 1: Stress and the Body

Malkinski, N., & Feldscher, S. B. (2021). Edema Management. In T. M. O. T. R. L. C. H. T. Skirven, A. L. M. D. Osterman, J. M. P. T. P. C. H. T. Fedorczyk, P. C. M. D. Amadio, S. B. O. T. R. L. C. H. T. Feldscher, & E. K. M. D. Shin (Eds.), Rehabilitation of the Hand and Upper Extremity (pp. 798-811).

Pelka, M., Heidari, J., Ferrauti, A., Meyer, T., Pfeiffer, M., & Kellmann, M. (2016). Relaxation techniques in sports: A systematic review on acute effects on performance. Performance Enhancement & Health, 5(2), 47-59. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.peh.2016.05.003

Walsh, M. T. (2021). Therapist’s Management of Upper Quarter Neuropathies. In T. M. O. T. R. L. C. H. T. Skirven, A. L. M. D. Osterman, J. M. P. T. P. C. H. T. Fedorczyk, P. C. M. D. Amadio, S. B. O. T. R. L. C. H. T. Feldscher, & E. K. M. D. Shin (Eds.), Rehabilitation of the Hand and Upper Extremity (pp. 704-719).

Figure 1. ‘Respiratory Muscles’. Bio Ninja. Retrieved 9th August 2020 from: https://ib.bioninja.com.au/standard-level/topic-6-human-physiology/64-gas-exchange/respiratory-muscles.html

Figure 2. ‘Breathing and the Nervous System’. On The Go Physical Therapy. Retrieved 9th August 2020 from: https://www.onthegophysicaltherapy.com/blog/tag/injury+prevention