The Therapy of Breathing

By Jill McVey, DPT, ATC

As any softball or baseball player can tell you, one does not need to be highly conditioned to play the sport. Highly skilled and strong, yes, but not aerobically conditioned the way a soccer player needs to be. As a former softball player, I assumed I would experience some growing pains when I decided at the age of 30 to try out for the Rat City Rollergirls.

I found early in my training I could keep up with the rest of the derby newbies on the track, but whenever I tried to exert myself too much on or off skates, I would get nauseous and eventually throw up. Every time. Sometimes I felt so sick after a night practice I would wake up the next morning and spend five minutes dry heaving in the bathroom. Breathing also felt laborious and I was afraid to practice without my inhaler close at hand.

This was my daily experience, but I rationalized it as normal by telling myself I had never trained for a sport like this, so discomfort was to be expected.
Two years of discomfort later, it dawned on me that I was easily in the best shape of my life, yet my nausea and breathing problems were actually worse than ever. It had even become a running joke with my team and trainers. Jill the Puker.
Then, a month ago, I took a class called Postural Respiration from the Pelvic Restoration Institute. In this class I learned about the ways our breathing patterns and postural habits can cause rotations throughout the body, affecting not only musculoskeletal pain, but also internal processes like stomach emptying and acid reflux. I learned how severely restricted my ribcage was, and how that was forcing me to overuse my neck muscles to breathe, creating the illusion of an asthma attack. Best of all, I learned that with some precise exercises and positioning tools, I could completely change my GI and respiratory symptoms.
I committed to a few regular exercises to correct my breathing patterns and changed my posture to promote better breathing strategies. Before each training session or derby practice I practiced a specific stretch, and after each meal I positioned myself carefully to promote digestion.

It has been a month since I started the exercise regimen. Since then, I have experienced acid reflux for maybe five minutes total, whereas before I lived with it every day, often for hours. I have less anxiety and insomnia. And best of all, I can train hard and feel only a slight touch of nausea, rather than it ruining each workout. I still have a lot more work to do, but for the first time in years I don’t dread my workouts. I’m enjoying working with my therapist at MSPT and focusing on keeping my pelvis and breathing in a more optimal state.

I always wanted to be the jammer in roller derby — the person who wears the star on her helmet and gets to score the points. It’s also a position that is utterly exhausting and takes heavy contact from often larger blockers who will do anything legal to prevent the jammer from scoring. Now I can face down a line of opposing blockers and think about how I’m going to juke around them, rather than looking around for the closest garbage can. Thanks to my new breathing strategies I get to be Jill the Jammer instead of Jill the Puker.

It’s amazing that I can refine something so seemingly automatic and unconscious as my breathing and create such a fundamental change in my athletic performance and sense of general function. The physiology of breathing is a fascinating science and proper breathing is a vital skill necessary for optimal function of the movement system. I am thrilled we are able to offer empowering changes to our patients at Movement Systems by teaching you these skills as an essential element in your overall plan of care. Be sure to talk to your physical therapist about how proper optimal breathing technique can change your life!