Breathing happens whether you think about it or not- so what’s the big deal?

Introducing…the phrenic nerve

The phrenic nerve is a nerve that originates in the neck (C3–C5) and passes down between the lung and heart to reach the diaphragm (Science of Touch, 2019). The nerve controls the contraction of the diaphragm as well as the relaxation.

This is a big one! This is why when there is dysfunction in the spine (particularly the neck), it can affect the function of the phrenic nerve- and therefore impact the ease of our breath.

Nerves carry vital information from the brain to the organs and other tissues of the body, and then carry feedback information from those tissues back to the brain. These feedback systems can be disrupted when the joints of the spine aren’t moving as they should.

So what happen’s when the phrenic nerve doesn’t supply the right information to the diaphragm?

The diaphragm- where?

The diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle, located just below the ribcage, which attaches just underneath your sternum at the front of your chest, the vertebra at the middle part of your back, and to the ribcage.

When you breathe in, the diaphragm will contract and push the abdominal organs down so that the lungs have room to expand with air. This is why you have been told to “Belly Breathe”, that is let your stomach push out when you breathe in- and also why women wearing corsets in the victorian era were known to faint! It was because the lungs couldn’t expand enough into the abdominal cavity to take in enough oxygen!

When you breathe out, the diaphragm will relax and travel up into the ribcage, pushing the air out of the lungs. When this happens, the pelvic floor muscles (the ones you use to hold your pee) will elevate and contract. If the core and pelvic floor muscles aren’t functioning well, it will be impacting your ability to exhale the breath as well (Science of Touch, 2019).

Shallow breathing

Long-term shallow breathing can seriously affect our health. Shallow breathing hobbles the diaphragm’s range of motion. The lowest portion of the lungs — which is where many small blood vessels instrumental in carrying oxygen to cells reside — never gets a full share of oxygenated air. That can make you feel short of breath and anxious (“Take a deep breath – Harvard Health”, 2009).

When you take a long breath out, the inhale that follows is just a reflex contraction of the diaphragm to expand the chest, rather than the body having to actually suck the air in (Science of Touch, 2019). If the breath out is too short, the reflex won’t occur, and you will end up using more energy and muscular effort to expand the lung space. This is a major cause of tight neck and shoulder muscles, and tight spinal muscles.

We can get into the habit of shallow breathing for a variety of reasons.

-Too much caffeine increases the activation of your fight/flight response through triggering the release of adrenaline (Bradberry, 2012), which will increase your heart rate and cause rapid shallow breathing, reducing oxygen flow to the brain.

Anxiety and especially when associated with panic attacks, will also cause the release of adrenaline, and trigger shallow breathing. When you rapidly inhale, you aren’t able to fully exhale. Without full exhalation, you firstly aren’t releasing the air from the lungs to enable a full inhale. You will also miss out on the triggering of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which would normally cause the relaxation response.

Cultural expectations, including the desire to have a flat stomach, encourage holding our breath and sucking in our stomachs, further tightening our muscles.

Fascial restriction surrounding the spine, ribcage, diaphragm and psoas, can restrict the ability of the lungs to expand and contract. That is because the (intercostal) muscles in between the ribs, some neck muscles (scalenes, SCMs), the psoas, and the diaphragm all play a role in breathing. Gentle release of these muscles by a qualified chiropractor or massage therapist will go a long way in maximising the breath.

Restriction of motion in the neck affecting the phrenic nerve as it exits C3-C5. Whiplash, poor posture, sedentary desk jobs, long commutes and too much phone use all have an impact on the function of the neck and therefore can affect the function of the phrenic nerve.

Diaphragmatic breathing

Changing your breath habits won’t happen overnight. But a daily practice is a good way to start.

Chose a moment in your day where you can practice your breathing. It might be on your commute, where you turn off all distractions, play some calm music and focus on making your exhalation at least as long as your inhalation.

Maybe you can even make it to regular yoga classes, or practice at home with youtube to get you started. Vinyasa yoga is a a strong, flow style practice where your movements are synchronised with the breath. If you are wanting something more relaxed, Yin yoga is a slow, restorative practice where you can bring your heart rate right down, and focus on your breath.

How to Diaphragmatic Breathing

To practice breathing from your diaphragm, lie on your back with one hand on your stomach and one hand on your chest. Breathe in deeply while pushing out your stomach as far as you can. The hand on your stomach will move out and the hand on your chest will remain still. When you exhale, you will feel your stomach pulling back in. Both your chest and shoulders should stay relaxed and still.

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Bradberry, T. (2012). Caffeine: The Silent Killer of Success [Blog]. Retrieved from

Science of Touch. (2019). Explaining the Phrenic Nerve [Video]. Retrieved from

Take a deep breath – Harvard Health. (2009). Retrieved 3 January 2020, from