Peterson: How Simply Breathing Can Become a Royal Pain in the Neck

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. Believe it or not women are far more prone to dysfunctional breathing than men are. Why you ask? 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. Women, being more conscious of their appearance wouldn’t  dare be seen in public with their stomachs pooching out while they breath, 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! 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 have to activate and lift our arms out of the way so our chest can expand. Next, we have to pull our diaphragms in the opposite direction, remember it’s supposed to go down not up rendering it useless. Now our neck muscles have to pull these heavy ribs up in order for the lungs to fill up with air.  

On average a person takes more than 23,000 breathes per day, that’s more than 8 million a year, so is it any wonder when we use our neck and shoulder muscles to breathe they get sore?

Relax ladies, 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. Make an appointment with your massage therapist soon and ask for a breathing analysis and get on the road to a happy pain free life.

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

Kreig Peterson is available for consult at 505.410.6161. For more information, visit

Editor’s note: Kreig Peterson owns In Touch Medical and Therapeutic Massage in The Mary Deal Building in Los Alamos. He graduated with honors at (UTMI) Universal Therapeutic Massage Institute in Albuquerque in 2011 and UTMI’S medical massage program in 2012. Kreig is nationally certified by NCBTMB and working on his board certification with this organization.