Peterson: How Simply Breathing Can Become A Royal Pain In The Neck

By Kreig Peterson
Medical Massage Therapist

Many clients suffering from neck and shoulder pain are actually creating this painful condition simply by breathing improperly and need some convincing before they believe their chronic headaches, numb hands or debilitating neck pain can be caused by the routine act of breathing.

So, what’s the connection? If the diaphragm doesn’t do its job well secondary muscles in the upper chest (pectoralis minor) and throat (Sternocleidomastoid and scalenes) and shoulders (trapezius and supra spinatus) try to take over the daunting task of breathing. Unfortunately, these muscles are ill suited for breathing on a routine basis and they exhaust and eventually injure themselves.

We call this type of breathing, secondary breathing. Believe it or not both men and women are prone to dysfunctional breathing. Why you ask? Men tend to use secondary breathing because of an injury such as a car accident or from shallow breathing during deep concentration.

Women, being more conscious of their appearance, wouldn’t dare be seen in public with their stomachs pooching out while they breathe, so they have adapted to use their secondary breathing muscles in their neck and shoulders and their statuesque appearance remains intact and in control right? Wrong!

Proper breathing is accomplished by the diaphragm. When a person activates their diaphragm to breathe the large dome shaped muscle flattens and pushes the abdominal contents down and your stomach has to move outward. This creates a vacuum in the lungs, and they fill up with air.

Proper breathing requires virtually no other muscles to move. Dysfunctional breathing requires that we fill up our lungs by drawing air in and expanding our chests up and out and certain muscles are required to do that.

Our arms are heavy and put weight on our rib cage so the shoulder muscles activate and lift our arms out of the way so our chest can expand. Next, we pull our diaphragms in the opposite direction, remember it’s supposed to go down not up rendering it useless. Now our neck muscles pull these heavy ribs up for the lungs to fill up with air.

On average, a person takes over 23,000 breathes per day, that’s over 8 million a year. Is it any wonder when we use our neck and shoulder muscles to breathe they get sore? Really, really sore!

Just imagine doing 23,000 curls a day! Do you think that your arms would be burning pretty quickly? Secondary breathing will also lead to excessive hypertonicity in the neck muscles which creates incredible compressive forces on the cervical spine which can lead to premature disk erosion and vertebral disk bulges. Now you’re really in trouble and it’s off to your neurologist.

Relax people, there is hope. It is possible to retrain your diaphragm to work properly but it will take a commitment and a bunch of little notes taped all over your house and on your computer to remind you to relax and breathe the right way.

I have literally witnessed clients who cannot take a breath if I put a weighty stone on their stomachs. This means that the vagus nerve isn’t firing properly, which can also lead to problems with the gut and heart. There is a more insidious thing that occurs with secondary breathing. Stress! That’s right, people that primarily do secondary breathing are unwittingly turning on their sympathetic nervous system which is your fight or flight response.

I often ask folks who breathe this way if they worry a lot. The overwhelming response is yes! Primary breathing, using your diaphragm, turns on your parasympathetic nervous system which is to rest and digest.

Make an appointment with your medical massage therapist soon and ask for a breathing analysis and get on the road to a happy pain free life. You’ll also be taught neuromuscular stretches that can completely eliminate painful neck symptoms.

P.S. It is actually possible to breathe correctly and not one soul will ever notice.

Kreig Peterson is the owner of In Touch Medical and Therapeutic Massage located in The Mary Deal Building in Los Alamos. Kreig graduated with honors at (UTMI) Universal Therapeutic Massage Institute He then went on and graduated UTMI’S medical massage program in February of 2012 Kreig is a board certified Medical Massage Therapist. Kreig Peterson is available for consult at 505.410.6161. For more information go to