Hands up if you have ever suffered or suffer from lower back pain? Please keep your hands up, now for the rest of you, hands up if you know someone who has suffered or suffers from back pain? Keep your hands up, now, last question, hands up if you NEVER want to suffer back pain ever again? Fantastic, I now have everyone reading this article with your hands in the air you can now put your hands down. What if I told you that I could teach you a very simple technique that, once implemented, you could minimise and even alleviate back pain forever? Would you like to read about it?
Great, okay, could everyone, please take your right hand and place it on your stomach. Now, take a deep breath in and exhale. Now, repeat that again, deep breath in and exhale. Okay, everyone just relax. Okay, so hands up if you pushed your stomach out when you breathed in. Chances are, only a small percentage of you reading this article still have the natural ability to breathe the way in which we were all born with and designed to do. Around about now, you’re probably thinking, what the hell has this breathing thing got to do with fixing my back pain? Stay tuned folks all will become clear in a moment.
Before we get into the main content of this article, I need to give you a very brief anatomy lesson. Your lungs are located within the chest cavity and these are attached to the diaphragm. In order for your lungs to inflate the way in which they were designed and in the manner with which we were all born with, the diaphragm contracts or pushes down and this reduces the air pressure within the lungs. As a result air rushes into the lungs in order to equalise the pressure and this process is called “Boyle’s Law”. Feel free to Google this at your leisure. As you exhale, your diaphragm relaxes, increasing the air pressure inside the lungs and in order to equalise, air rushes out. As the diaphragm pushes down, all of your vital organs contained within your abdomen have to get out of the way so that the lungs can inflate.
They can’t move down any further as your pelvic floor is in the way, so they go where they have no other choice; that is to push out the front of your belly. So what do you think is happening when your stomach doesn’t stick out when you inhale and your chest expands instead? Your lungs are trying to expand without the diaphragm contracting. Forced inhalation occurs where the rib cage is forced upwards and as a result you don’t get as much air into your lungs as you should be. You are in fact breathing shallower, so you have to take more breaths than normal.
So, given the fact that we were all born with the perfect breathing technique, and I’ll prove this to you in a moment, when did we all forget how to breathe, why did this happen and how does this affect back pain? I’m not sure when but sometime around when you were a child, someone told you to suck your tummy in so that you didn’t look fat and it was around this time that your breathing pattern was altered forever. Girls tried to squeeze into tight jeans and as a result they held their tummies in also. Why did this happen? It’s because you became self conscious of your appearance and so you sucked in your tummy because you were afraid that others would criticise you for looking like you were fat.
Now I said I was going to prove to you that we are all born with this breathing technique and here’s the proof now. For those of you blessed with small children, when you get an opportunity, just sit back and observe them breathing and you will see how when they breathe, they stick their stomachs out when they breathe in and when they breathe out they pull it back towards their spine.
As I said, we were all born with this correct breathing pattern, its just that we have all learned a faulty pattern due to lifestyle choices. Now you are aware of this, it’s time to re-learn correct breathing and also to ascertain how this relates to back pain. What skeletal structure exists between the bottom of the rib cage and the top of the pelvis? The answer: Five lumbar vertebrae and incidentally, they are called “L1, L2, L3, L4 & L5”. Now, who knows where the majority of all back pain occurs in the spine? Yep, you guessed it, between these five vertebrae. In fact between L4 & L5 is the most common point for herniated or bulging discs.
Now while these are the largest and sturdiest of all the vertebrae in the spine, the point I’m trying to emphasise is that because there are only five of them between the top of our pelvis and the bottom of our rib cage, we were also provided with an intricate muscular system around our midlines to assist and provide us with the ability to support ourselves during everyday life, to hold us upright, keep us stable and strong so that we could perform our seven primal movement patterns of squat, lung, pull, push, bend, twist and gait (gait being walk, jog and run). You will notice I didn’t say “SIT”. That’s because the human species was never designed to sit down, which one of the reasons why we are in such poor health today but that’s the topic of another article.
This intricate muscular system that we have been provided to support us is called the INNER CORE and your diaphragm, which you should be using to breathe, is an integral part of this. The inner core is like a cube or box of muscles with transversus abdominis as the sides and front of the box/cube, your diaphragm is the lid, your multifidis (a complicated set of small muscles that run up your spine) as the back of the box and your pelvic floor as the base.
When you breathe using your diaphragm, you activate the muscles of the inner core at some stage. Activation equals contracting and relaxing which also equals actual USAGE.
This inner core is designed to provide you, among other things with a strong base of support through which all human movement can be performed.
So, as a baby and then as a child, when you breathed through your tummy like I have just described to you, you were inadvertently providing yourself with a built in weight belt if you like for when you needed to support yourself while functioning. (Squat, lunge, pull push, bend twist and gait)
Have you ever noticed that when a child is playing they not only breathe correctly, but they also have perfect lifting technique? If you ever get an opportunity, again sit back and watch a group of toddlers playing at a playground or in a sand pit. Watch how they bend their knees and squat perfectly to pick anything up off the ground. It’s not until they watch their parents that they learn all those horrible bad habits of picking things up off the floor by pivoting at the hips. Again, we were born to lift correctly we just learn poor habits again, resulting in back pain.
Okay, so who can tell me what happens to a muscle when it stops being used? It wastes away. It gets smaller (or atrophies) or it becomes weak. So, when you were a child and you breathed the way you were born and designed to do, you were in fact exercising your inner core and it grew with you and maintained its strength so that you could hold yourself upright, strong and stable as you grew. Then, as you learned a faulty breathing pattern, your inner core began to become weak. In essence it switched off and ceased to work.
Now because these muscles that make up the inner core are deep within our abdomen, none of them can be seen from the surface and you’ll find that the majority of our gym junkies who are only interested in the aesthetic or cosmetic muscles when it comes to exercising only work on the muscles that they can see (chest and biceps) so they don’t work anything else and they have no idea what the inner core is.
Okay, we are almost getting to the point, if your inner core is no longer working and not providing you with stability through the mid section and especially those five lumbar vertebrae holding you up, WHAT IS? The answer is the intricate small (in terms of size) set of muscles designed to simply hold the vertebrae in place, not to hold us upright and stable. In essence, you are asking a small set of muscles to perform a function that they are not designed to do. Eventually, they will fatigue because they are being overused and BANG!!!!
There is however a vital point that needs to be made here. Breathing, or should I say a faulting breathing pattern is not the only possible cause for a weak inner core. 21st century lifestyle and in particular our sedentary (sitting down) life style has a dramatic effect on the strength (or lack of) of your inner core; however, that too is the focus of anther article.