Bodywork Therapies – Breathing Pattern Disorders
People with a breathing pattern disorder (BPD) mainly breathe into their upper chest, and do not usually use their diaphragm much. BPDs are extremely common and contribute massively to ill-health. People with a chronic BPD are often persistently fatigued and anxious; many have various musculoskeletal aches, pains and odd sensations. BPDs are not a disease, but a habit, like poor posture. Hyperventilation is an extreme form of a BPD.
When a tendency towards upper-chest breathing becomes more pronounced (usually in stressful situations), biochemical imbalances occur. Excessive amounts of carbon dioxide are exhaled, which makes the blood more alkaline. This in turn produces a sense of apprehension and anxiety, reinforcing the anxious upper-chest breathing pattern. The vicious circle can lead to panic attacks and phobic behaviour as the person begins to avoid situations that trigger these feelings – commonly, queues, crowds and enclosed spaces. Recovery from this cycle may be possible only when breathing is normalised.
This breathing pattern can disturb the normal oxygen supply to the heart in three ways, at times causing it to beat abnormally. First, the smooth muscles that surround the blood vessels constrict, reducing blood supply to the heart muscles. Second, the red blood cells release the oxygen they should be delivering to the heart muscles less efficiently. Finally, the sympathetic nervous system becomes stimulated, which unbalances heart rhythms.
Knock-on effects of increased blood alkalinity include constriction of blood vessels, thereby reducing blood supply to all tissues in general but the brain in particular.
At the same time, the alkalinity of the blood discourages the release of oxygen from haemoglobin (Bohr effect), reducing further the oxygenation of tissues and the brain. This can lead to so-called “brain-fog” in which consciousness is blurred and mood swings are more likely. Peripheral nerves become more sensitive and easily irritated, thereby lowering pain thresholds. Muscles tire rapidly and a general feeling of fatigue sets in. When the smooth muscle in the walls of the digestive tract are affected irritable bowel symptoms will get worse. Allergies and food intolerances can get worse too, due to increased circulating histamines triggered by other chemical changes.
Additionally, purely “overuse” stresses occur in the breathing muscles themselves, with increased tension and trigger-point activity that involve the chest, upper back, shoulder and neck. A cascade of new strains follow, as tensions increase in spinal (especially neck) and rib joints, triggering head, neck, shoulder, arm and upper back pain.