Breathing and Joint Mobility

Breath = movement 

We’ve discussed how breathing provides our body with oxygen in order to create the energy we need to move. We can observe our body parts move in various ways when we breathe. But is there more to breath and movement than that? 

The diaphragm does more than just move air into and out of our body. This muscle has connections to just about every part of the body. It connects to areas like our shoulders, hips and pelvis, all the way to the roof of our mouth and neck through connective tissues and nerves! These connections are extremely relevant to physiotherapists. 

Breathe better, move better, live better

Because of these intricate connections, a change in someone’s breathing pattern can directly influence the way surrounding joints function. 

Take this example:  Jessica broke her collar bone and had to keep her arm in a protective sling for several weeks to allow it to heal. Her shoulder joint has become stiff from the lack of movement. Her breathing pattern and posture have changed as a result of her pain and her whole arm being immobilized. Now the broken bone has healed, but everything feels “stuck”. If we only work on her shoulder, she may continue this new limited way of breathing out of simple habit. Adding in some breath work to help expand her ribcage and “wake up” the breathing muscles that haven’t been used in their full range is crucial to helping her regain her full joint mobility. 

Breathe to ease your pain

Studies have found links between altered breathing patterns and neck pain, orofacial pain, back pain and pelvic pain. Stress and pain can also change how we breathe and lead to muscle tension and further restrict how much we can move our joints. Upper-chest breathing and over-breathing have both been linked to pain. These are just a few reasons why addressing someone’s breathing is a key part of every physiotherapy assessment. 

Here’s a classic example:  Mark hurt his back picking up a heavy bag of earth last summer. The tissues healed, but he is now apprehensive anytime he has to bend over to pick something up. This apprehension causes him to hold his breath when he bends forward to pick something up. The breath holding creates excess pressure in the body, limiting the amount of movement available in his hip joints and causes him to over-tense his back muscles. This actually increases his chances of injuring that same area. This becomes a vicious cycle as Mark unconsciously continues to use this breath holding strategy. Becoming aware of his breathing, making sure he isn’t holding his breath, and reminding himself that bending over isn’t dangerous may be just enough to break the cycle! Breaking habits requires time and practice. We will explore these concepts in the coming articles. 

Try this little experiment:  Find a bed, carpet or exercise mat and lie down on your back (if this works for you! Please be mindful of any existing injuries or pains). Begin to notice your breath. Notice where you feel it in your body. If possible, bring one knee to your chest, holding the leg as close to your chest as possible with the help of your arms or a towel. Notice your breath now. Has it changed? Notice how much movement is available in your bent hip. Perhaps you feel a tightness or twinge, be sure to be gentle with your body and not pull too far into discomfort. Now take a deep breath in, allowing your body to expand anywhere it can. As you breathe out, letting go of any effort, see if you’re able to bring you knee a bit closer to your body. Try this a few times, using your breath to create space in your body for the hip. Slowly lower the leg and spend a few moments resting on your back. Notice your breath again and any sensations that may have appeared in the body. Now compare this with the other leg. Did you notice a link between your breath and the amount of movement available in your hips? 

Breathing as you move is probably the best way to ensure that your body is using the most efficient movement strategy. It allows us to distribute the load among many parts so that we don’t overwork any one part of the body. 

To find out more about this, stay tuned for our next article! 


Intro : Dare to Breathe
1. The Diaphragm: Life and Breath
2. Breath: Supply and Demand
3. Breathing and Joint Mobility
4. The Diaphragm: A Web of Connection

5. Breath and Emotion 
6. How Stress Can Change Our Breath 
7. Breath Awareness: a Powerful Tool to Bridge the Body and Mind
8. Breath Regulation: Empower Yourself!
9. Mindfulness and Meditation: the Power of Awareness
10. Yoga: Transforming the Body and Mind


Prosko, S. (2019). Breathing and Pranayama in Pain Care. In: Pearson N, Prosko S, Sullivan M (Eds). Yoga and Science in Pain Care: Treating the Person in Pain. London, Uk: Singing Dragon Publishers; pp. 140-156.