When working with patients with back pain, many are often surprised that we very often start by asking you to take a deep breath. You might think ‘I’ve been breathing all my life…this is not what I need help with today!’.

By the end of this blog, you will understand why learning to breathe efficiently can be the first and most valuable step towards learning to manage your back pain. And we’ve added a handy video to help you!

The link between breathing dysfunction and back pain

In recent years, an evolving area of focus in the realm of back pain is the relationship between breathing dysfunction and musculoskeletal disorders. The way we breathe, often dismissed as an automatic bodily function, can have a significant impact on the health of the musculoskeletal system.

What is breathing dysfunction?

Breathing dysfunction, in the context of musculoskeletal disorders, encompasses irregular or inefficient breathing patterns that tend to involve altered recruitment of respiratory muscles. This can manifest in several ways, but the most common we see in back pain patients are:

1️⃣ Shallow Chest Breathing – breathing high into the chest rather than into the lower abdomen

2️⃣ Breath Holding – Instances of unconscious breath-holding during stress that contribute to increased muscle tension, potentially exacerbating musculoskeletal discomfort.

How are the two linked?

The relationship between breathing dysfunction and back pain stems from their closely interwoven nature. Essentially, many of the muscles that support, protect and stabilise the spine are also involved in breathing mechanics. We know this to be a bidirectional relationship – meaning that those with back pain are more likely to have breathing dysfunction, and those with breathing dysfunction are more likely to develop back pain.

When breathing patterns are dysfunctional it can lead to several issues.

  • Postural Changes: Dysfunction in breathing patterns often leads to alterations in posture. Individuals exhibiting shallow chest breathing may experience increased tension in the neck, upper back, and lower back muscles, resulting in discomfort and pain.
  • Core Stability: Optimal diaphragmatic function is pivotal for maintaining core stability. Dysfunctional breathing compromises this stability, potentially contributing to lower back pain.
  • Stress and Tension: Dysfunctional breathing elevates stress and anxiety, triggering the release of hormones that heighten muscle tension and inflammation, exacerbating back pain.
  • Oxygenation Compromise: Poor breathing patterns may reduce the supply of oxygen to muscles and tissues, hampering tissue repair and regeneration, thereby impeding the recovery process from back injuries.

Using breath as part of your rehabilitation

Fortunately, addressing breathing dysfunction can be a straightforward and a pleasant experience and can usually be resolved relatively quickly. If you’d like to try this at home, here’s a video to talk you through it.

At the Sussex Back Pain Clinic we can guide you through a process of breathing retraining exercises that can help you improve your breathing patterns and help you take a significant first step in learning to manage your back pain.

I’m here if you need me!


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