Take a Deep Breath: the Diaphragm & the Pelvic Floor

The abdominal canister is a model that we have used in rehab for a number of years, especially when it comes to discussing the (often controversial) topic of core stability. Traditionally regarded as encompassing the pelvic floor, diaphragm, deep abdominal muscles (particularly Transversus Abdominus), our definitions of ‘the canister’ or ‘core’ have of late expanded to include psoas, obturator internus, quadratus lumborum and the osseous components of the pelvic girdle (Chaitow 2012).

Often, we in pelvic rehab bemoan the fact that the pelvic floor is not given the attention it deserves (when we know it really is the answer to everything…) but I do believe that we, as pelvic health specialists are just as guilty of not paying enough attention to the ‘roof’ of the canister, the diaphragm.

The diaphragm and the pelvic floor are bound together structurally and functionally by both fascial and muscular connections (Chaitow 2012). The anatomical link between the diaphragm, psoas and the pelvic floor has been explored by Gibbons in 2001 ‘…The diaphragm’s medial arcuate ligament is a tendinous arch in the fascia of psoas major. Distally, the psoas fascia is continuous with the pelvic floor fascia, especially the pubococcygeus’. Newell in 2005 discussed the relationship between the diaphragm and transversus abdominus and Carriere in 2006 concluded that psoas spasm may influence diaphragmatic mechanics, and conversely that abnormal tensions in the medial arcuate ligament of the diaphragm may irritate psoas.

Paul Hodges has also concluded in his 2007 paper that breathing and continence may be more connected to low back pain than levels of activity or BMI, reinforcing Smith’s 2006 study looking at the link between breathing disorders, pelvic floor dysfunction and back pain in over 38,000 Australian women.

Of course, breathing, like pelvic floor functioning, can also be linked to psychological factors: when we are stressed, our breathing tends to become more apical (and our pelvic floors may hold excess tension). When that becomes habitual rather than a temporary stress response, a sub-optimal breathing pattern may develop, which disrupts the abdominal muscle balance and makes both back and pelvic pain more likely, with the added risk of pelvic venous congestion (Chaitow 2012). Myofascial trigger points may also develop because of restricted breathing patterns. We also know the opposite is true – such as using controlled breathing to calm down, to let go of tension and even to modify pain and autonomic responses (Busch 2012). Athletes may be at a particular risk of dysfunction, competing at high levels of intensity, both physically (in competition?) and psychologically (fear of losing a college scholarship?) Although more research is needed to confirm or disprove these connections, theoretically normalizing breathing patterns may improve outcomes in cases of low back or pelvic pain.

In my specialist course ‘The Athlete & the Pelvic Floor’ in Denver next month, we will look at specific manual therapy interventions for the diaphragm and its allies, the psoas and quadratus lumborum. As with any manual therapy techniques, we must always follow up with a clinical and home exercise program, or the effects will be only temporarily beneficial (Coronado 2011, Hegedus 2012) and so we will look at breath re-patterning, integration with the pelvic floor and how this is an often overlooked step when it comes to managing athletes with pelvic floor dysfunction. Hope to see you there!

1. Chaitow, L & Jones, R (Eds) ‘Chronic Pelvic Pain and Dysfunction 2012 Elsevier Churchill Livingstone
2. Gibbons, S.G.T. 2001 The model of Psoas Major stability function. In: Proceedings of 1st International Conference on Movement Dysfunction, Sept 21-23 Edinburgh, Scotland
3. Newell, R. 2005 Anatomy of the post-laryngeal airways, lungs and diaphragm. Surgery 23 (11) 393-397
4. Carriere, B 2006 Interdependence of Posture and the Pelvic Floor. In: Carriere, B The Pelvic Floor, Thieme New York
5. Hodges, P, Sapsford, R, Pengel, L 2007 Postural and respiratory functions of the PFMs. Neorourol. Urodyn. 26 (3), 362-371
6. Smith, M, Russell, A, Hodges, P., 2006 Disorders of breathing and continence have a stronger association with back pain than obesity and physical activity. Aust. J. Physiother. 21(52) 11-16
7. Coronado, R, Bialosky, J & Cook, C. 2010 The temporal effects of a single session of high-velocity, low-amplitude thrust manipulation on subjects with spinal pain Physical Therapy Reviews Volume 15, Issue 1 (01 February 2010), pp. 29-35

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