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Our breathing is an extremely complex process involving muscles and nerves, various bones and also internal organs other than the lungs. Numerous health problems can lead to a disturbed or even complete failure of breathing.
It is important to place emphasis on correct breathing technique and to check it from time to time. In this article we will tell you what is important and what measures must be taken to maintain healthy breathing.
Breathing has two basic functions in the body. On the one hand, it serves to absorb oxygen, which first comes into the lungs by inhaling (inspiration) the air and is then introduced into the bloodstream via the pulmonary alveoli. Oxygen is important in order to maintain the functionality of the body's organs, because all body cells rely on a continuous supply of oxygen.
The second task of breathing is to transport carbon dioxide out of the body as a decomposition product of used oxygen. This removal of carbon dioxide takes place through exhalation and is no less important than the absorption of fresh oxygen. Because if too much carbon dioxide accumulates in the body, this can have devastating consequences. In addition to material imbalances in the blood, cardiac and brain functionality is particularly at risk here, which is why long-term breathing problems can have life-threatening consequences.
Our breathing is controlled and regulated by the respiratory center of the brain. It is a special group of neurons, which were formerly referred to as life nodes and are located in the elongated spinal cord (medulla oblongata). Various brain sensors measure here, among other things, the carbon dioxide and oxygen content, but also the pH value in the blood and exchange the information with each other. If certain norm values - which are otherwise very strictly defined - are exceeded or undercut, the respiratory center intervenes in a regulating manner and, for example, lets the breaths of the lungs become deeper or increases their frequency.
Like the pulse, blood pressure and body temperature, breathing is one of the basic vital signs and is therefore referred to as the hallmark of life. A person without breathing will die untreated within a few minutes, since all vital organs are no longer supplied with sufficient oxygen and therefore sooner or later they cease to function. And even a temporary cessation of breath, which was remedied in good time, can already lead to permanent organ damage. This particularly affects the brain, the performance of which can be reduced for life over a certain period of time without oxygen.
As mentioned above, breathing is controlled by the brain's own breathing center. The respiratory mechanics of the lungs themselves are then a highly complex physical process, which is primarily based on different pressure conditions inside and outside the body as well as muscular contraction processes. For this purpose, the respiratory center first sends corresponding impulses to the nervous system, which then transmits the signals to the muscles. The breathing process is then as follows:
- Small chest muscle (pectorialis minor) - This muscle section at chest level aligns the shoulders when inhaled.
- Head turner (sternocleidomastoid muscle) - The head turner is usually responsible for the side tilt of the head. In the context of inspiration, on the other hand, they serve as light stretching muscles for the head area.
- Rib lifters (Musculi levatores) - Contrary to what the name might suggest, the rib lifters are not actually responsible for lifting the ribs. Rather, they pull the vertebral bodies of the spine downwards and thus cause an upright spine, which leads to an elevation of the ribs.
- Saw muscles (Musculi serrati) - A particularly important muscle group, part of which is located in the lumbar region, another in the lateral rib area and a third in the area of the neck. The main task of the serrati muscles is to assist in expanding the chest. The corresponding saw muscles are named as follows:
- Anterior saw muscle (serratus anterior)
- Posterior superior saw muscle (serratus posterior superior muscle)
- Posterior lower saw muscle (serratus posterior inferior)
- Stair muscles (Musculi scaleni) - These skeletal muscles coordinate the movements of the neck and trunk in the course of inspiration
- Spinal erector (Muscle erector spinae) - A group of muscles that coordinate the movement of the spine during inhalation.
- diaphragm (Diaphragm) - During the expiration, the previously contracted muscle groups relax. During this process, the diaphragm rises again, which results in a reduction in the volume of the lungs. This creates an overpressure in the lungs, which is why, in the sense of pressure equalization, used and carbon dioxide-rich breathing air flows back out through the trachea.
- Intercostal muscles (Intercostal muscles) - The intercostal muscles help the diaphragm to exhale again. They also relax during the expiration, so that a reduction in the volume of the chest can lead to a reduction in the size of the lungs.
- Respiratory and abdominal muscles - Both the abdominal and the respiratory muscles are only very slightly involved in a physiological expiratory train. In this regard, the auxiliary breathing muscles only intervene if the breathing process has significant deficits due to health disorders. In such a case, it supports the raising and lowering of the chest wall with its own contractions. The same applies to the abdominal muscles, which only intervene in a supportive manner in the case of deficient exhalation, analogous to the auxiliary breathing muscles.
A healthy adult takes 12 to 18 breaths per minute with a trouble-free breathing process as just described, although this process is usually relatively unconscious. It is only when there are disturbances that we realize how dependent we are on undisturbed breathing and how quickly we can deal with fear if it does not occur.
Numerous health problems can lead to the breathing process deviating from a healthy technique. This can result in a life-threatening condition for those affected within a few minutes, which usually occurs through
- Shortness of breath,
- A headache,
- Circulatory problems,
- Drop in performance,
- Fatigue or
noticeable. Breathing problems are particularly tricky if they develop gradually, since those affected do not always notice the disturbed breathing here immediately. The oxygen content of the blood is inconspicuous in such cases, but it decreases continuously and can then cause sudden and unexpected complaints.
The reason why people often do not recognize minor to ever increasing breathing problems is, on the one hand, the fact that the body first tries to compensate for a slight lack of oxygen by changing the breathing technique. In this way, a critical value is avoided for the time being, but later it becomes more intense. On the other hand, breathing is such an essential process that it is hardly perceived consciously and therefore inconsistencies often do not receive the necessary attention.
Causes of disorders and problems in breathing technology
We now know that the interlocking of different muscle, nerve and bone structures is necessary for trouble-free breathing. After the neuronal structures of the respiratory center in the brain have sent corresponding signal stimuli to the respiratory muscles and the respiratory muscles, they initiate special muscle contractions, which expand or reduce the bony structures of the chest wall (spine, ribs and sternum). In this way, the lungs then expand or contract, which in turn enables breathing in and out.
This complex mechanism also suggests that the causes of a disturbed breathing technique can be relatively varied. For a simplified overview, it is easiest here to subdivide the cause fields into the structures involved, i.e.:
- Diseases of the lung tissue,
- Chest diseases,
- Respiratory muscle disorders,
- Respiratory center disorders.
Lung tissue diseases as the main cause
The lung tissue itself can cause a disturbed breathing or wrong breathing technique due to a variety of causes. This usually happens when the respiratory function of the lungs is restricted by existing health problems. For example, the lung tissue can become inflamed due to the penetration of pathogens or allergens, causing the mucous membrane of the respiratory tract to swell and produce an excessive amount of inflammatory secretion.
As a result, the lung tissue is no longer able to carry out the necessary gas exchange to the usual extent. The result is often insufficiently deep breaths and therefore shallow breathing. Gentle breathing, for example due to inflammation-related pain, is also possible and the breathing then flattens out. Possible clinical pictures that are associated with this complication and sometimes lead to a respiratory disorder not only affect the lungs themselves, but can also migrate into the lung tissue from other areas of the airways, as the following overview shows:
- Asthma (bronchial asthma),
- Runny nose (rhinitis),
- Hay fever (allergic rhinitis),
- Sore throat (pharyngitis),
- Tonsillitis (tonsilitis),
- Inflammation of the larynx (laryngitis),
- Summer flu (influenza),
- Inflammation of the bronchi (bronchitis).
Most of these inflammatory diseases can be completely remedied with timely counter-treatment, so that incorrect or disturbed breathing is only temporary. However, the structure and histological structure of the lung tissue can also change to such an extent that it can result in permanent loss of function and incorrect breathing techniques become a permanent problem.
The causes of such remodeling processes include environmental toxins and toxic aerosols, which are inhaled over a longer period of time and thus massively attack the tissue structures of the lungs. Examples of such pollutants are nicotine, tar, asbestos or chemical solvents. Autoimmunological and genetic processes can also cause corresponding remodeling processes in the lung tissue. The result is cells that:
- are degenerate, such as in lung cancer,
- are no longer elastic enough, such as fibrosis, asbestosis,
- hinder gas exchange, such as in emphysema of the lungs,
- producing excessive mucus like cystic fibrosis,
- Form tissue nodules, such as in sarcoidosis,
- or cause a narrowing of the airways, such as in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
Important: Especially when it comes to pollutant influences that cause respiratory problems, only nicotine consumption is often mentioned as a possible cause. However, there are also certain risk occupations, such as in the area of road construction. Working with tar, as well as staying in exhaust gas-laden road traffic, increase the risk of chronic changes to the lung tissue enormously. The same applies to industrial professions where toxic fumes are used. It is therefore important that people in relevant occupational fields always wear a respiratory mask in order to protect themselves against serious respiratory diseases and thus persistent breathing difficulties.
Breathing disorders and chest diseases
The pleura, i.e. the tissue structure that glues the lung tissue to the chest wall and thus enables the lungs to expand or contract in the first place, can change due to illness and thus lead to breathing disorders. This happens very often, for example, as a result of accidents that occur in the chest area. In such a case, serious accident injuries not infrequently cause blood or air to enter the pleural space, thereby reducing or completely abolishing the adhesive properties of the pleura. As a result, the lung tissue collapses and can no longer expand fully.
A similar event can also occur in the context of tumor diseases, very severe inflammation and heart diseases, whereby it is often tissue fluid or wound water that accumulates in the pleural space. The three typical clinical pictures that arise with such air or liquid collections are:
- Hematothorax (if blood accumulates in the pleural space),
- Pneumothorax (if air accumulates in the pleural space),
- Pleural effusion (if water accumulates in the pleural space).
Breathing disorders due to muscle and bone diseases
Anyone who has ever had severe back pain will have noticed that breathing can also be difficult. Muscle tension in the back muscles as well as the intercostal and abdominal muscles can prevent uninterrupted breathing to a not inconsiderable degree. But the bony parts of the chest wall are also prone to failure and are therefore susceptible to complications that negatively affect breathing technology. Possible symptoms are:
- Intercostal neuralgia,
- Lumbar syndrome (better known as "lumbago"),
- Neck tension,
- Shoulder problems,
- Herniated discs,
- Broken bones or ribs,
- Degenerative processes in the rib, cervical or thoracic spine area.
Special attention should be paid to broken ribs and collarbones. They make breathing difficult because of their painfulness and the associated limited ability to raise and lower the chest. In the case of fractures of the ribs and collarbones, an additional danger also arises from the immediate proximity of these bony structures to the pleura and lungs. Should bone fragments shift as a result of falls or accidents, there is always a risk of pneumo- or hematothorax, since the bone tips of the broken fragments can penetrate into the pleura or lung tissue.
Breathing technique disorders due to nerve malfunction
Nerve disorders in the area of the respiratory organs (e.g. in the respiratory center of the brain) occur particularly in the context of tumor diseases or accidents with a traumatic brain injury. As a result of cerebral hemorrhage or brain swelling (brain edema), there is often excessive pressure on the respiratory center, which then reacts with malfunctions or even functional failures.
It is not uncommon for accident victims to be intubated and artificially ventilated until the brain has swollen again. The respiratory center can also be paralyzed as a result of degenerative or autoimmunological processes in the brain and peripheral nerves, such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or myasthenia gravis.
A certain special position in the area of the nerve-related causes for a disturbed breathing technique takes the diaphragmatic paralysis. This affects the diaphragmatic nerve (phrenic nerve), which initiates the respiratory contractions of the diaphragmatic muscles and arises from the spinal cord at the level of the cervical spine. In the context of degenerative processes and herniated discs of the cervical spine, but also as a result of tumor diseases, it is conceivable that the diaphragmatic nerve can be pinched or depressed, which limits its function.
Often there is only one-sided damage or paralysis of the diaphragmatic nerve, which is why only one side of the diaphragm is affected by the loss of function and can no longer contract adequately. In this regard, unilateral paralysis of the diaphragm leads to a unilateral elevation of the diaphragm and is often only noticeable in minor breathing disorders. On the other hand, bilateral paralysis of the diaphragm, as can occur with paraplegia, among other things, is associated with a considerable disruption of the breathing technique.
By the way: Stress can also have a significant impact on the nerves involved in breathing. People who are permanently exposed to hectic everyday life therefore also tend to use the wrong breathing technique.
Special case: damage to posture
One cause that causes breathing problems more and more and that affects the muscles, nerves and bone structures in the area of the respiratory organs is incorrect posture. Of course, there are rare inherited diseases and accident injuries that, without the intervention of those affected, cause incorrect posture in the chest area and thus make breathing more difficult. Postural breathing problems are much more common
- Lack of exercise
- or an incorrect sitting position
owed. Our modern day life additionally promotes these risk factors, whereby sitting in a crooked position (e.g. through computer work) produces more and more cases in which patients take posture-related gentle breathing. A dangerous trend that can only be defused by a more conscious lifestyle and self-control of your own posture.
Tips for good breathing technique
There are a number of measures that help to convert your breathing into a healthy routine or to maintain it. The first priority is to pay more attention to your own breathing and factors that can affect it. In conclusion, therefore, our tips for improving personal breathing technique:
Breathe through the nose: A stressful everyday life, but also obesity and incorrect posture often provoke mouth breathing. This is not only more unhealthy because it allows unfiltered air to enter the airways and thus the infiltration of infectious agents is promoted. Experience has shown that breaths that are taken through the mouth are less deep, so that in the long term insufficient oxygen gets into the lungs. It is therefore important to breathe primarily through the nose. The fine hairs on the nose filter dirt, pollutants and germs from the air in advance. In addition, the air is warmed and humidified, which is particularly important in cold temperatures and dry heating air in winter in order to prevent respiratory infections.
Take a healthy posture: It is particularly important for people who are seated or otherwise work on postures that it is important to regularly review their own posture. In order to prevent gentle breathing, it is most sensible to incorporate smaller movement units into everyday life and a dangerous posture routine (e.g. permanent back curvature) counteractively. In your free time, additional courses such as yoga are a good help to improve breathing and posture sustainably.
Improve breathing technique through sport: With every sport without exception, correct breathing is also important. You learn these relatively early on from a responsible trainer or coach, which is why professional instructions for newcomers to sports are highly recommended at the beginning. In the long term, good coaching and adapting the breathing technique shown can also have a positive impact on everyday breathing. A special tip in this regard is trampoline jumping. The jumping or hopping movement not only boosts the metabolism, but also stimulates the diaphragm, muscles and lungs, which can improve their functionality. Other sports that are particularly useful for breathing include weight training, cycling, Nordic walking, water aerobics and swimming.
Stop harmful everyday habits: Regardless of whether it is stress that is harmful to breathing or habits such as smoking: If you are striving for the right breathing technique, you should definitely separate yourself from such habits. Instead, daily breathing rituals, such as aromatherapy or saunas, make sense. Those who cannot escape harmful influences for the lungs due to their job are recommended to use efficient respiratory protection and, in the long term, possibly change their job if breathing already suffers from the working conditions.
Consider herbal therapy: There are countless herbs that are of great help for breathing difficulties. For example, they can be used for aromatherapy, steam baths, sauna infusions or teas, and usually without an existing respiratory disease. As an exception, an herb should be mentioned that has so far still enjoyed a dubious reputation. We are talking about cannabis. In this country, some of which are still considered to be illegal drugs, medicine in other countries is already standardizing on the healing effects of the essential oils contained in the cannabinoid of the marijuana plant. Respiratory diseases such as asthma and mucous airways in particular react extremely positively to cannabis. And even with lung cancer, cannabis has shown extraordinary healing potential in various studies. However, smoking cannabis is rather harmful to the lungs.
If you prefer to try medicinal plants that are less legally controversial, the following herbs are recommended:
- Licorice root,
- Vitamin A,
- Vitamin B,
- Vitamin C,
- Omega-3 fatty acids,
- German Society for Pneumology and Respiratory Medicine e.V .: Our respiratory tract structure, DGP
- Swami Rama, Rudolph Ballentine et al .: The Science of Breath: A Practical Introduction to Breathing, Breathing Mindfulness, Agni Verlag; Edition: New translation (May 23, 2019) and Pranayama,
- Dennis Bösch et al .: Lungs and respiratory tract, Springer; Edition: 2014 (April 10, 2014)
- Johanna Schenck: Breathing Techniques: Targeted Use of the Power of Oxygen, 2019
Pay attention to a conscious diet: Proper nutrition also plays an important role in healthy breathing. This starts with the actual eating process itself. Because if you eat hectically, you are breathing incorrectly, which can then contribute to an unhealthy breathing routine. On the other hand, taking time to eat, chewing carefully and portioning meals well also supports a desirable breathing technique. In addition, a healthy diet also prevents risk factors such as obesity and nerve disorders. Important nutrients that particularly support respiratory function are:
In this regard, apples, berries, chilli, fish, grapefruit, ginger, garlic, cabbage, horseradish, melons, carrots, oranges and onions are considered to be particularly healthy foods for the lungs and respiratory tract.
Check breathing rhythm: It is completely clear that you cannot pay attention to proper breathing around the clock. However, it can help to observe the rhythm of breathing at least once a day and "readjust" if necessary. A good recommendation is to consciously breathe deeply in and out for about five minutes every day. A little break should be taken after each. The mechanism not only helps maintain a healthy breathing technique, it can also help reduce stress and relax. (ma)
Author and source information
This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.
Miriam Adam, Barbara Schindewolf-Lensch