When asked to describe the diaphragm, most would identify it as the breathing muscle. That is certainly true, but the diaphragm’s true importance goes even beyond the vital function of breathing. The average person should do their best to develop their diaphragm, but the athlete or the yogi should make it absolutely essential. It is not an overstatement to say the diaphragm, along with the heart, is the most important muscle in the body, but not using it properly can lead to a wide variety of dysfunctions in the body.
The diaphragm is a flat muscle that attaches to the base of the ribcage like a parachute-like dome. It also anchors to the front of the lumbar spine and has some connection the abdominals on the front of the body. The primary role of the diaphragm is breathing, which we all are programmed to do perfectly from birth. That does not mean we have all maintained perfect breathing mechanics throughout our lives. In a healthy, normal system the diaphragm initiates breathing by contracting and expanding the lower rib cage which enlarges the lung space to draw outside air in (inspiration). The diaphragm will then relax, which pulls the ribcage in and squeezes the lungs, expelling the air (expiration). If a person has been chronically under stress from emotional or physical sources, a typical over-activity of the chest and neck muscle results. This over-activity leads to chronic muscle tightness and leads to chronic “chest breathing” where the upper chest and neck muscles start to take on the role of the diaphragm. This disturbs natural function and leads to a common presentation of a raised chest and arched low back called “Open Scissors Syndrome” (below)
The lesser known importance of the diaphragm lies in its relationship with the spine. During a proper breath, the diaphragm stabilizes it’s attachment to the lumbar spine, which allows it to initiate a natural chain reaction of the abdominals, pelvic floor and lower back muscles that all work to stabilize the ribs, spine and pelvis all at the same time! This is an automatic reflex that is the key to true core stability which is vital for protection of the spine during movement.
In our clinic, breathing is evaluated in all patients as it can lend insights into the cause of chronic pain or dysfunctions. Without professional evaluation, the best advice is to truly spend time practicing diaphragmatic breathing each day as this alone will help activate the reflex. Sometimes people with layers of dysfunction need additional treatment and rehabilitation of the diaphragm in order to normalize breathing. Normal breathing is a skill that should be practiced and mastered as it will allow the body to reach new levels of performance.