The diaphragm is a muscle that has several major roles in life but doesn’t get as much publicity as it deserves. Not only does it have an important role in respiration, but it is also vital for posture, continence, low back stabilization, and mental health (and probably at least 10 more major life functions). Here are three examples why our diaphragm directly relates to our quality of life: Urinary incontinence is a major problem for many people. A little-known fact: the abdominal diaphragm has a role in maintaining continence. Usually the pelvic floor muscles (PFM) get all the glory here, but the PFM link up with diaphragm during quiet diaphragmatic breathing. The diaphragm and PFM together have a spontaneous organization about themselves, where they descend (lengthen down) in unison when we inhale and ascend together in unison as we exhale. This coordination of the abdominal and pelvic diaphragms helps maintain continence because without this coordination, intraabdominal pressure builds up beyond what our PFM can withstand, which can cause pelvic floor dysfunction (including urinary incontinence). Here is a helpful video to see this spontaneous organization in action. With patients, I always liken the movement of the pelvic floor and abdominal diaphragm to movement that of a jelly fish moving through water. Can you picture it?!
Lumbar support. Recent figures show that up to 80% of the American population will experience low back pain at some point. If you’ve experienced low back pain even after trying “all of the core exercises” that you thought were supposed to help, consider your breathing. The abdominal diaphragm is the top portion of core musculature (ie, the “lid” on the core container). While it has a variety of muscular attachments on the sternum and ribcage, its other attachment site is the lumbar spine. In most people, the diaphragm attaches to L1-L3 vertebral bodies and the long ligament that runs along the front of the spine, meaning it acts as a spinal stabilizer more than what people give it credit for. The problem being many people tend to accidentally hold their breath when they perform core work. Learning how to breath abdominal diaphragmatically and using breath with movement can be a helpful way to stabilize the spine (nice visuals here).
Positive effects on our nervous system. Have you ever completed a yoga or Pilates class and felt oh so good?! These practices involve lots of deep belly breathing. While there are many reasons to feel good after leaving a yoga or Pilates class, the practice of consistent diaphragmatic (deep belly) breathing stimulates our calming parasympathetic nervous system. As our diaphragm moves up and down during deep breathing, it essentially massages our vagus nerve, which is our ‘rest and digest’ nerve. Diaphragmatic breathing also helps regulate heart rate, leaving our body feeling energized as opposed to depleted (here’s a nice reference for more information). This day in age the sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous is often at work. It should be comforting (and helpful) to know that the use of deep belly breathing to regulate which nervous system is operating is always available to us 24/7.
Poor posture, stress, pain, and general tension can impede the flow of the breath by reducing the abilities of the diaphragm to move through its full excursion. Improved breath patterns can help people sit/stand upright more effectively as well as experience reduced pain and overall improved function. Understanding the power of the diaphragm can ultimately help improve quality of life in many ways.