Breathe with Your Diaphragm to Help Abdominal Pain

When people find out I’m an educator about the abdomen, most of them immediately have specific stories or questions for me.  On our recent rafting trip, a dedicated Ironman triathlete asked me to tell him about the diaphragm muscle.  After boring his pants off about the placement, function, and potential dysfunctions of this awesome abdominal muscle, I said, “Is that the information you were looking for?”  And he replied, “Sure, recently my PT had me start breathing into the back part of my diaphragm and it has really had a huge impact on my performance and comfort while running.”

In that moment, I realized that it has been a long time since I’ve talked about the diaphragm in such a straight-forward way.  But . . . DUH!  I should be talking about this all the time!

Adhesion, tightness, and trigger points through the diaphragm and the organs it touches can have a huge impact on your abdominal pain.

Because the most simple things are some of the most effective things, let’s talk for a moment about using your WHOLE diaphragm when you breathe.

This is the diaphragm – it’s sort of like an umbrella:
diaphragm illustration 2

and it is tucked up inside the low ribs. 

It connects to the front, back, and sides of your ribs and touches the heart and lungs above and the liver and the stomach below:

diaphragm illustration

(The diaphragm is the pink bit.  Don’t be distracted by the green kidneys.  They are actually in the deepest layer of the abdomen and are only shown on top of everything here so you can get an idea of their general placement in regards to the other organs.)

As you can see, the diaphragm is really tucked in there between all of our organs and has a big and important job to do!

So . . .

A Natural Technique for Abdominal Pain

Standing or sitting comfortably, place one hand on your lower rib area, and one hand on your belly.  Like so:

abdominal breathing


Now take a breath in and see if your hands move at all with the inhale and exhale.  If only your chest moves, then see if you can concentrate and get the inhales and exhales to move your hands just a bit.

  1. Inhale, let the belly expand.
  2. Exhale, let the belly contract.

This is diaphragmatic breathing.

If it’s too hard to feel your hands move in this position, sometimes it helps to change your position a little.  Try softening your knees and bending forward just a touch.  Like so:
abdominal breathing 2

Again, try to get both of your hands to move a little.  Inhale, let the belly expand.  Exhale, let the belly contract.


Exercise Two

If you’re standing or sitting around at work or at home, waiting for something to happen or taking a quick break and you want to try your diaphragm breathing in a more incognito way, simply . . .

Place your hands on your mid-low back.  Now take a breath and see if you get get the ribs under your hands to expand on the inhale and contract on the exhale.  Like so:

abdominal breathing 3


Whether or not you are able to breathe into back body will tell you a lot about how effectively you are using your breath to get oxygen to all of your sweet little cells.  To give your brain the juice it needs to keep running well.  To give your abdominal organs the workout they need to be effective.

It will also very likely highlight any areas that are particularly stuck whether in the musculoskeletal system or in your belly.  If this breathing exercise causes you discomfort, or increases your pain, that is a good sign that your diaphragm and the nearby organs need some help.

NOT TO WORRY!  Manual therapy and massage are fantastic for helping release exactly these areas.  If you’re ready for some hands-on work for your diaphragm, this blog post is for you!


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Isabel Spradlin
Isabel Spradlin
Isabel Spradlin is a Registered Nurse (RN), Licensed Massage Therapist (LMT), and abdominal adhesion specialist in Portland, OR. She specializes in educating people about manual treatment (massage) for abdominal pain and dysfunction, especially when it is adhesion related. Please see the "Programs" page to see her offerings.

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