Shallow Chest Breathing can be a Pain in the Neck

by Katja Walker, Remedial Massage Therapist

Most of us know the feeling of a sore, tight neck. In fact, the neck and shoulders are one of the most common area of our bodies which we humans feel tension, pain and stiffness.

Factors that contribute to this are undoubtedly our modern lifestyle in which we sit endlessly at computers or laptops, carrying our heads forward in the “tech neck” position as it has been coined, lugging around backpacks or hand bags over our shoulders, sleeping on our stomachs and just the built-up tension from stressful, busy lives.

However, there is something a little less obvious that may well be a contributing factor to your neck pain. This is the very common but poor habit most of us adults develop over time – shallow chest breathing.

If you watch the way in which a baby and most young children breathe, you’ll see their bellies moving methodically in and out with each breath. By contrast if you watch most adults breathe, you’ll notice their chest expand and a slight up and down movement of their shoulders.

By breathing only through your chest, and not using the deeper form of “belly breathing”, you are inadvertently creating tension in your shoulders and neck.

Dr. Paul Salinas, a chiropractor from New York City, describes it this way: “Shallow breathing from your chest can increase the frequency of neck pain because you start using the muscles in your neck to assist with breathing.” (Giddings, 2015)

Our diaphragm and intercostal muscles between the ribs are the only muscles specifically designed for respiration. When you inhale, your diaphragm tightens and moves downwards which increases the space in your chest cavity into which your lungs expand. The intercostal muscles in between the ribs also help enlarge the chest cavity by contracting when you inhale.

Our neck muscles are not designed to be involved in breathing – they are only designed to move our head, neck and shoulders. However, when we subconsciously only breathe from our chest, our shoulders rise and fall with our chest.

The levator scapulae muscles (pictured) are the neck muscles most notably drawn into this process.

They run from the shoulder blades to the cervical spine in the neck, and their function is primarily to elevate or lift the shoulders.

In shallow chest breathing with the rise and fall of the shoulders, they are activated repetitively all day long.  No wonder they get tired and sore!

So, do yourself a huge favour in alleviating the tension in your neck and shoulders by becoming more aware of your breathing.  Take the time to practice breathing deeply from your stomach.

Over time, you’ll be surprised how calming it is and how much better your neck may feel!

Reference: Giddings K (2015) “Breathing Properly? The Harm You Could be Causing Yourself.”

Comments 1


Excellent post! As a physiotherapist, breathing patterns are something that I think is frequently overlooked and undervalued in the treatment and management of stress, ongoing neck pain and headaches.

October 14, 2020