Muscular Tension, Pain and Belly Breathing
All of us at some stage in our lives have experienced a build-up of muscular tension in our bodies. It is commonly felt in the neck and shoulders but can actually be experienced anywhere in the body. If muscular tension persists it can develop into a source of pain.
Why do muscles become tense?
Muscular tension can be caused by multiple factors however it is driven largely by our subconscious brain in response to a perceived threat. It is thought to be part of our fight or flight response. This winds up our muscles and getting them ready to assist us in either running away or taking the fight head on. It is often linked with a more rapid and shallow breathing pattern to allow for increased oxygen into the body.
This can be helpful when there is a physical threat which you need to fend off or run away from. But what if the threat is a deadline for work? An upcoming exam? Relationship concerns? Or even a fear in relation to a recent diagnosis? In these situations the response of muscular tension is often highly unhelpful and can lead to the exacerbation of pain from an injury or even creating pain without there being an injury!
How do we help to relieve muscular tension?
Common approaches to relieving muscular tension are massage, stretching, dry needling or heat packs. These approaches can all be very effective in the management of muscular tension and are often a useful part of your management – however the effects are often not lasting.
Another approach to managing muscular tension is to tap into the subconscious brain using belly breathing. This has the ability to calm our central nervous system and wind down the fight or flight response.
Step 1 – Recognise that you are holding muscular tension – this can take some doing and sometimes needs guidance from your Physiotherapist to learn how to check in with your body. A common cue is recognising that a body part is held stiff or rigid for seemingly no purpose (e.g having your shoulders elevated towards your ears).
Step 2 – Check your breathing pattern – most people holding tension will breathe in the upper part of their chest without much use of the diaphragm. You can test this on yourself with one hand on the top of your chest and another on the belly. Which hand is moving more? When at rest your belly should gently come in and out indicating the use of the diaphragm. The upper chest should only be used when exerting yourself such as when exercising.
Step 3 – Brain off belly on – the focus here should be on completely switching off from all other stimuli and focussing solely on your breathing and the movement in and out of your belly. Breathing should not be loud. Allow your body to go limp during this process to relax and turn off all tension.
Step 4 – Honing the skill – with repeated practise this process will become easier to perform and possible to do whilst attending to other things. The end goal is to return your subconscious breathing pattern to relaxed belly breathing and therefore reduce resting muscle tension.
This process may sound simple but can often be difficult to perfect without the guidance of a skilled Physiotherapist. There may also be multiple factors leading to your individual circumstance that require assessment and management by one of our highly trained Physiotherapists. If you have a persistent pain problem, muscular tension is potentially a contributor – book with one of our physiotherapists today.