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Do you have a Breathing Pattern Disorder?

By Annelize Ferreira, October 2014

Have you thought about your breathing today? Probably not…

For most of us breathing is an unconscious and automatic process. Apart from supporting life, the mechanism of breathing supports many other physiological and structural functions in the body that is crucial for the health of your connective tissue and overall wellbeing.

On average we inhale and exhale 24 000 times a day. The muscles of respiration help with this action. The main breathing muscle is the diaphragm, located above your abdominal content and attaching to the outer edges of your ribs and into the spine.

Due to our seated, computer and technology driven lifestyles we adapt our postures so that we don’t use our diaphragm effectively. The muscles of the neck and shoulders start doing the work of the diaphragm. These muscles are especially active when we are in a constant state of stress. We call this type of neck/shoulder breathing pattern: upper chest breathing. Over a period of time this can lead to a state of constant inhalation, basically not breathing out fully with each breath. This causes an imbalance in you blood gasses and your blood becomes more alkaline. Oxygen cannot circulate around the body very well under these circumstances.

The body’s reaction could be:

  • anxiety,
  • tendency to headaches,
  • dizziness,
  • pins and needles in both hands or feet,
  • cramps and cold extremities
  • lowered pain threshold
  • brain fog and
  • nervous system problems, some replicating heart attack type symptoms.


Fig 1. Effects of Breathing Pattern Dysfunction

Image Credit: Leon Chaitow, Text Credit: Lum, 1994

An upper chest breathing pattern is only OK for short periods of times i.e. when you exert yourself during exercise or if you need to scale a six foot wall while being chased by a lion! J Other than this, breathing should be low and slow and performed by the diaphragm. This breathing pattern is called “abdominal breathing”.

How can you tell if you are breathing incorrectly? 

If you suffer from any of the symptoms described above you may be have an altered breathing pattern. It is worth checking your breathing pattern with the High Low test described below.

The High Low test is an easy way to find out whether you have an altered breathing pattern. Ideally the hand on the abdomen should move first before the hand on the upper chest an in a horizontal plane (See arrows). The air should ideally fill from the bottom of the lungs towards the top without the shoulder moving up to the ears.


Fig 2. High Low Test

How can you improve your breathing pattern?

Specific physiotherapy techniques such as positional release, muscle energy techniques and myofascial release could help to mobilise the soft tissues, ribs and diaphragm. These structures can get restricted and blocked due to abnormal breathing patterns. However, an altered breathing pattern is a habit and thus, most of the work will be done by the patient who will be performing simple breathing exercises a few times a day to reset and establish a new breathing pattern. This will help you to improve your overall wellbeing and performance in your sport and life.

If you would like to know how to improve your breathing pattern contact Annelize Ferreira, Lead Physiotherapist at Harrogate Physiotherapy Practice on 01423 544004.