What To Do When You Can’t Take A Full Breath
Last updated: 25th March 2019
If you’ve ever been in the position where you can’t take a full breath, there’s a good chance your posture has become compromised. One common consequence of a compromised posture is that your body isn’t utilizing the correct muscles for breathing.
Even if you’ve never had the experience where you can’t take a full breath, there’s still a good chance the above is true for you anyway.
With regard to general health and well being, the majority of people in the west nowadays have two fundamental things in common, which are:
- A compromised posture which, in turn, means inefficient movement patterns. Very often there's some kind of physical pain too (not everyone experiences pain, but almost everyone has inefficient movement patterns)
- They no longer breathe correctly, which also has its own set of problems associated with it
When the subject of correct breathing is raised in conversations, people often laugh at such a “ridiculous” comment. After all, “I’m still alive aren’t I?”
And of course, you are still alive, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this.
The question is, though, how well do you breathe generally on a day to day basis? How much more alive would you like to be? And are you aware of how simple the process of restoring correct breathing patterns and increasing your vitality is?
Okay, that was three questions.
You see, your body is very adaptable and when something isn’t working as it should be, it will divert resources from elsewhere to get the job done, albeit while compromising efficiency.
It’s called compensation and this is the basic premise of The Egoscue Method, Muscle Balance And Function and other corrective exercise modalities that look to restore proper function to your body:
Restore lost functions to your body and remove compensation patterns so that your body functions as it is supposed to and so you can live pain free.
Well, this applies not only to physical pain such as back pain, hip pain and knee pain, it also applies to one of the most fundamental movement patterns that you carry out more than 23,000 times per day (yes, twenty-three thousand times per day):
There’s a correct way to breathe and, conversely, there are numerous incorrect ways to breathe, which are the compensation patterns we touched on a moment ago.
The following is not medical advice and while it’s quite likely that at least some, if not all, of what you’re about to read applies to you, it’s also possible that there’s something else going on that needs to be checked out by an appropriate authority.
I’d love for you to continue reading and to try the suggestions towards the end of the article.
But, if you feel you should check with an appropriate authority if you should improve your breathing, then that's what you should probably do.
What Does It Mean If You Can’t Take A Full Breath?
Before you dismiss this article as not applying to you, let’s first look at what a full breath is.
A full breath is where you breathe deep into your belly so that it expands as you inhale, which then progresses to full expansion of your abdominal region.
You’ve seen a balloon being inflated before and proper breathing is quite similar to that, in that there should be a uniform expansion starting in your belly, which then continues into your kidney region and then on to your lower ribs region.
So if you can’t take a full breath, there are two ways in which this might apply to you:
1. Acute inability to take a full breath
Acute in this case simply means of short duration, as in it has happened quite suddenly. Acute symptoms are usually quite severe.
2. Chronic inability to take a full breath
Chronic means that it has persisted for a long time and/or is recurring. Traditional treatment methods usually find chronic conditions hard to eradicate (although, quite often, they’re not difficult to eradicate at all – it just needs a different approach).
If you haven’t woken up today with that feeling somewhere in your body that means you can’t take a full breath, then there’s a good chance you fall into the second category where the problem is chronic, which in turn means you probably aren’t even aware of breathing incorrectly.
Acute Inability To Take A Full Breath
If you went to bed last night feeling fine and have then woken this morning and notice that you can’t take a full breath, it could well be that you have “pulled a muscle”, which is inhibiting the ability of the muscles of respiration to function properly.
So the next question you may have on your mind is “How did I pull a muscle in my sleep?”
The chances are your posture has been compromised for some time and, when that’s the case, it only takes one tiny thing to tip you over the edge into acute pain of some description.
The misalignments, muscle imbalances and lack of proper function in your body have been creating hundreds, if not thousands, of accumulated microtrauma in your body.
When this happens, it only takes one more straw to break the camel’s back.
A Corrective Exercise For When You Can’t Take A Full Breath In The Acute Stages
So if you are in the acute stages of not being able to take a full breath, the following corrective exercise should help to get you back to proper breathing a lot quicker than if you simply leave it to heal on its own.
It’s very important the you follow the instructions carefully and that you pay very close attention to what you feel in your body as you are doing this exercise.
Static Back Pullovers
- Lie on your back with your legs up over a chair or large block etc
- Get the backs of your legs in as close to the chair as possible so that your hips are bent at 90 degrees and your knees are at 90 degrees also
- Interlace your hands together so that your palms are touching each other
- Place your straight arms above your chest and keep your elbows locked out straight throughout the entire range of motion
- Pull your shoulders down towards the floor and HOLD them down throughout the entire range of motion
- From this position, begin SLOWLY taking your arms overhead towards the floor, and BREATHE IN as you do so
THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT
- Only take your arms as far as you can comfortably go and then return to the start position and BREATHE OUT as you do so
- Do NOT force yourself to get your arms to the floor as pictured. That is the end result we are looking for, but only in your own good time!
- Now repeat the process
- Each time you take your arms back and down towards the floor, you must BREATHE IN with the motion
- And then BREATHE OUT as you return them to the start position
- Depending on how strong your inability to take a full breath is, it may take several minutes before your range starts to increase and your ability to breathe easier improves
- After 10 or so repetitions, take a break for 30 seconds before resuming for another set of 10
If doing this is too uncomfortable for you, then stop doing it. Listen to your body and it will guide you.
If you do need to stop, then you might find one of the following exercises is better for where your body is at right now.
Breathing Is The Gateway Into Your Nervous System
If you can’t take a full breath on an ongoing regular basis, there’s a good chance that you’re not even aware that you can’t take a full breath.
Dysfunctional breathing has become so normal that most people aren’t even aware of how bad it’s become.
When I’m working with a client that has come to me in pain, more often than not, their corrective exercise program will start off with initiating proper breathing patterns before we do anything else.
Well, for one, breathing is the most fundamental movement pattern that there is and consciously altering it is one of the most effective ways of entering the central nervous system.
Why do we want to enter the central nervous system?
- Pain is invariably caused by muscle imbalances and a compromised posture
- Muscles move bones (misalignment of bones is, by definition, “bad posture”)
- Muscles contract and move bones because of signals sent via the central nervous system
- Muscles that are ‘stuck’ in a shortened position and/or that have chronic trigger points are getting that ‘instruction’ to stay ‘stuck’ from your nervous system
Initiating proper breathing gives us a gateway into the nervous system.
Another reason for restoring proper breathing patterns is because it directly affects your posture.
The main muscle of respiration is called the Diaphragm (Di-a-fram). The diaphragm is a dome shaped muscle that spans your torso from one side to the other, just beneath the lower portion of your rib cage.
Now, without getting too technical, how your diaphragm functions has a direct impact on how your primary hip flexor – the Psoas muscle – functions. And because it’s your primary hip flexor, it then has a direct impact on how efficiently your hips function.
As with all things in your body, a big enough problem in one part can start the cascade effect that creates other, more serious problems, elsewhere and that are seemingly unrelated.
Your body really is a highly integrated unit!
When Your Breathing Has Been Compromised For Some Time (Chronic)
Okay, so whether you’re aware of that fact that you can’t take a full breath or not, the chances are, you can’t … or at least you haven’t done so in a proper manner for a very long time.
Here’s an exercise that will not only initiate proper breathing for you once again, but will also have a direct positive impact on:
- The position of your upper spine (thoracic spine)
- The position of your lumbar spine
- The position of your pelvis
- The position of your shoulders
- And it can also be a great way to start the process of correcting a hip disparity (a difference in function between your left and right hips
And, of course, there are the expected benefits such as:
- A clearer head
- An increase in vitality
- A general feeling of greater well being
Whew, that’s a lot of ‘bang for your buck’ just for lying on the floor and breathing properly!
Now, before you do the exercise, as with all exercises that I might recommend on this website, it’s important that you listen to your body.
If you feel any pain while lying in this position, then come out of it.
The benefit of working with me in person is that you can give me feedback and I can decide whether to alter the exercise slightly or swap it out for something more appropriate for your body.
As I’m not there to get your feedback, you will have to judge it for yourself.
Not all corrective exercises are appropriate for all people all of the time.
Modified Floor Block with Crocodile Breathing
How to Perform This Exercise:
- Lie on your stomach with your forehead on the floor and your legs straight out behind you
- Your feet should be pigeon toed and your buttocks relaxed
- Pigeon toed: Big toes touching and heels completely relaxed so they fall out to the sides
- Place pillows / blocks / something similar under your forearms so they are fully supported while relaxed
- The blocks should be about 6 inches / 15cm in height
- If that height isn’t comfortable, start with something lower that is comfortable – 4 inches /10cm or even 2 inches / 5 cm
- While in this position, breathe slowly, fully and deeply into your belly
- As you breathe down into your belly, concentrate on allowing the entire region to expand
- You should feel your belly pushing into the floor, your back (around the kidney area) expanding out and your sides/ribs expanding out
- Don’t worry if you don’t feel this initially; as you continue with the exercise, the proper pattern will become established and you will feel these things
- Do not press your arms into blocks – just allow them to relax
How Long To Do This Exercise:
- Keep breathing like this for 5 minutes
If you experience any pain in that position, you can adjust your arm and hand position as pictured below.
If that still causes you pain or discomfort, then come up out of the position and switch to the following exercise instead.
Static Back Abdominal Contractions
How to Perform This Exercise:
- Lay on your back with your legs up over a chair, or block, or similar
- Have your knees bent as close to 90° as possible and ensure you get in close to the chair so that your knees are directly over your hips
- Your arms are out to the sides with the palms facing up
- Take a slow . . . full . . . deep breath in through your nose and direct it into your belly
- Your belly should be rising with the breath (as opposed to only your chest)
- If you find it difficult to direct the breath into your belly and instead find you breathe up into your chest, place a book or something on your belly to help focus your attention in that area
- Now breathe out and allow your belly to fall again with the exhale
- At the point of having breathed out completely, contract your abdominal muscles – quite sharply – and HOLD for a count of 3 (tense as if bracing for an impact in the abdomen)
- After a count of 3, relax the contraction of your abdominal muscles and then breathe in again, REPEATING the entire process
How Long To Do This Exercise:
- Continue breathing like this for 5 minutes
Now stand up and notice what feels different.
Notice What Feels Different
You should notice how much easier you’re breathing now and when you really tune into your body, you’ll probably also notice how your breathing feels more natural and less effort.
You’ve just started the process of engaging the correct muscles of respiration, which in turn has allowed the muscles that have been compensating to relax and let go a bit. This will create a positive cascade effect throughout your body.
Remember to do this every day and notice what changes over the next week or so as the cumulative effects take a hold.
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