Living With Polio

Breath Control

You can save energy … by breathing! Say what? Isn’t that what we do all the time? Who even thinks about it?

Well, people with asthma, chronic bronchitis or emphysema (COPD) think about it a lot because they have to work hard at it, especially when they exhale. They have difficulty exhaling stale air and that leaves less room in the lungs to inhale the life-giving oxygen the body needs.

So why do I bring up this topic?
During the years that I taught classes for people with COPD, I came to realize that a lot of people who have apparently “normal” breathing don’t use their breathing muscles as effectively as they could. They use their small accessory muscles instead of the diaphragm. This inefficient breathing uses more energy and doesn’t provide as much oxygen to our bodies. We’re all looking for ways to conserve energy and maximize our abilities, and this is something we can do very easily.

Check your diaphragm while you breathe. 
The diaphragm is a large flat muscle which floats up under the ribs until you take a breath. Then it contracts and pulls downward, opening up space in the chest so the lungs can take in air. To check whether you’re breathing with your diaphragm, sit in front of a mirror with your arms relaxed at your sides. As you inhale, your abdomen should expand outward and your shoulders shouldn’t move. If your shoulders move upward you’re using less efficient muscles. It may be easier to detect how you’re breathing if you hold a small towel across your abdomen and watch whether the towel moves outward as you inhale and inward as you exhale. Another way to check is by lying on your back and placing a magazine on your abdomen. See if the magazine moves up and down while you breathe. If it doesn’t you’re not using your diaphragm correctly, you’ll need to practice diaphragmatic breathing several times a day until you do it unconsciously.

Don’t hold your breath during strenuous activities.
Inhale during the easy part of the activity and exhale when you’re exerting yourself, such as pushing, pulling, or bending. For example, when you bend over to tie your shoelaces first take in a breath. Then exhale slowly while you are bending forward.

Pursed Lip Breathing
Here’s a technique that’s very useful when you’re stressed out. Inhale very slowly to the count of 4 with your mouth closed. Then purse your lips (whistling position) and breathe out even slower through your mouth to the count of 8. Try this the next time you’re stuck in traffic.

Precaution for PPSers with respiratory weakness due to polio damage
Check with your physician before you try the above exercises on diaphragm strengthening if polio caused respiratory muscle damage or f you need mechanical breathing assistance. Your diaphragm, etc. may have been weakened during the initial attack or become weaker through the years. If so, the exercises given above may lead to over-use of the diaphragm.

© 2008 Grace R. Young

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