Muscle of the Month: Diaphragm
“Use your diaphragm! Speak from your belly!” my drama teacher always used to say. The teenager in me had no idea what she meant, but now years later I find myself saying the same things to my clients.
Your diaphragm is one of your core muscles, and is your main muscle of respiration. It should be your only muscle of respiration, but our stressful lives mean that our breathing patterns may become disordered, so that many of our other muscles take a larger role, weakening the diaphragm.
Actions: Expands thoracic cavity, allows air to flow into lungs.
Common pain culprit: Weakness caused by inactivity
Though the diaphragm can become taut or go into spasm (think hiccups or “getting the wind knocked out of you”), generally a weak diaphragm is of more concern than tautness. Weakness comes from decreased use, which in turn is the result of using our secondary muscles of respiration. These muscles, which include muscles in your neck, back, low back, and chest, are recruited by the body when it is put into a stressful state, resulting in more forceful breathing. This could be running from a lion, or, more commonly today, being stuck in traffic.
During quiet breathing, the diaphragm and intercostal (rib) muscles are the main breath activators, but as breath volume increases, the secondary muscles begin to take over. When we spend long hours in a high-stress state, those secondary muscles learn to do the job that the diaphragm is meant to do.
Because the majority of us live high stress lives, our secondary muscles ultimately become the primary muscles of breathing. Since this was never meant to be their main job, they become tight and painful, while the diaphragm becomes under-utilized and begins to weaken. This in turn weakens the core, causing a host of potential problems for the back, hips, low back and organs – even, for example, possibly making someone more prone to hiatal hernias.
The fix: Diaphragmatic breathing
Each day, practice breathing with your diaphragm, to begin engaging it again. Our Body Poets video on diaphragmatic breathing with RMT Crystal Veinot may help you: Ottawa Massage Blog – Breathing (3.5 minutes).
Once you’ve got the action of diaphragmatic breathing flowing easily, you can add more resistance to the breath and increase your strength by placing a bag of beans or a light sandbag on your belly.
Also, being alert to your stress levels and to opportunities to decrease them, through massage, meditation, exercise, yoga, or other stress-management methods, will help relax your secondary breathing muscles, allowing your diaphragm to take over its main job.
How does massage help?
Massage therapy helps to relax your secondary breathing muscles, so that the diaphragm and intercostals can function properly. It relieves shortness and pain in these muscles, permitting you to maintain a more neutral and efficient posture, with an open chest and relaxed neck and shoulders. Massage also lowers the stress hormones in the body, facilitating deep, full breathing that nourishes the body and brain.
Ask your RMT do a breathing assessment with you on your next visit, and to talk you through some diaphragmatic breathing during your massage.