The Breath of Life

LUNGSBreathing.  It seems like such a simple task that our bodies do regularly everyday, without much thought process, if any, on our part. At rest, we breathe an average of 12-18 breathes per minute which is about 17,280 breathes per day.  That is a huge number which does not even factor in the increased amount due to exercise or regular daily life activities.  The breath we take carries life sustaining oxygen, and the breath we exhale, expels what we do not need, carbon dioxide. This balance needs to be maintained so that our body’s cells can function effectively.

Take a second to focus on the breath, inhaling deeply and exhaling completely.  Many physiological and anatomical functions work together to make this “simple” task possible.  The diaphragm, a dome shaped muscle that separates the abdominal cavity from the thoracic cavity, works as the primary muscle of respiration.  The upper surface of the diaphragm attaches to the lower surface of the lungs.  When the diaphragm contracts, the volume of the lungs increases, which causes air to enter—inhalation.  When the diaphragm relaxes, its dome moves upwards, causing the volume of the lungs to decrease, and air is expelled—exhalation.  While  air moves into and out of the lungs during respiration, the thoracic cavity contracts and expands with the help of the muscles located between the ribs (the intercostals) and also the abdominal muscles.

Many factors contribute to how we breathe, which include, but are not limited to, weather, stress, meditation, muscle tone and strength, and physical exertion.  If breathing is compromised  by a chronic or acute condition such as emphysema, bronchitis, asthma, or COPD, the amount of awareness given to breathing definitely increases.  As soon as regular breathing is impaired, many side effects follow.  One of the major side effects is the anxiety that stems from not being able to take a full breath.  When this happens, the body enters a vicious cycle where labored breathing and anxiety feed off of each other, and keep escalating until steps are taken to counteract the process. 

There are many techniques given by doctors, respiratory therapists, and the like, to help regulate breathing and calm anxiety.  In addition to those techniques, massage therapy can also promote slower, more controlled breathing by calming the autonomic nervous system and by directly affecting the muscles involved in respiration.  Therapeutic massage relieves musculoskeletal problems and improves posture and circulation.  A more upright posture creates more space for the muscles involved in breathing to do the job they were designed to do.  In addition to that, massage therapy also reduces anxiety and alleviates pain, tension and stress, all of which promote healthier breathing.  Tapotement, or percussion, when properly applied to the chest and upper back, helps break up mucus and phlegm so the body can eliminate it, and therefore breathe easier.  Massage therapy performed on a regular basis in addition to traditional therapies can improve respiratory health.  Consider massage a beneficial part of the “simple” task of breathing well.

Thanks for reading!

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