Philosophers argue “I am therefore I am” or “I think therefore I am.” How about, “I breathe therefore I am”? In an emergency situation, the very first thing medical professionals check for is whether or not a person is breathing. Breath is a sure sign of life. On average, humans breathe about twenty thousand times a day. Breathing, or more scientifically, respiration, is a fairly complex process that involves the nose and mouth all the way down through the throat and lungs to the pelvic floor. The oxygen brought in through the breath is used throughout the entire body. However, the majority of the work happens in the thoracic region, or more simply, the rib cage. Let’s take a moment to learn about the ribs so we can breathe easier.
The rib cage or thoracic cage is the bony structure that encases the heart and lungs. It is comprised of twelve pairs of thin rib bones divided into three types: true ribs, false ribs, and floating ribs. Each pair of ribs attaches to either side of one vertebra in the spine. The twelve pairs of ribs correspond to the twelve thoracic vertebrae in the spine.
The top seven ribs, true ribs, attach directly to the sternum or breastbone. The ribs and sternum are connected with costal cartilage (“costal” is Latin for “rib”). The eighth through tenth ribs are considered false ribs. Instead of attaching directly to the sternum, they attach to the cartilage of the seventh rib. The final two ribs are called floating ribs, and do not attach to the sternum at all. In fact, they do not even make it all the way around to the front of the body.
In between each set of ribs are a group of muscles called intercostal muscles, which assist in the expansion and contraction of the rib cage. Other important muscles include the serratus posterior inferior (pulls lower ribs down), serratus posterior anterior (elevates top ribs), the subcostalis, and the transversus thoracis (both of which compress or contract the ribs).
Perhaps the most important muscle involved in breathing is the diaphragm. The diaphragm is a sheet of muscle that extends across the lower rib cage and is the primary mover during respiration.
The movements of the rib cage are both simple and very complex. In the most general terms, the rib cage has two primary movements: expansion and contraction. The rib cage expands on the inhale and contracts on the exhale.
One of the most fascinating facts about rib cage movement is that it is both a conscious and unconscious movement. For the most part, throughout the day, you do not have to think about your breath. The body will continue to breathe without you cueing each inhale and exhale. However, if you choose, you can consciously control the breath. You can change the tempo, depth, and direction of the breath at will.
What do I mean by direction? Most commonly, people exaggerate the expansion of the rib cage by puffing the chest up and forward. However, the ribs can expand down, wide to the sides, and even toward the back of the body. The inhale is typically considered the active part of breathing. A normal, quiet exhale is a passive movement, but the muscles in the ribs can actively contract during a forced exhalation.
The movement of the ribs is best illustrated by the image of a balloon inflating and deflating. It expands out all in one direction and then contracts inward. The movement is primarily regulated by the diaphragm. In a resting position, the diaphragm is slightly dome shaped. When you inhale, the diaphragm contracts downward and flattens out. On the exhale, the diaphragm relaxes back up to its dome shape.
Reasons to Engage
Though the rib cage is designed to expand in all directions, most favor one direction more than another. Some expand into the top of the ribs more than the bottom, the front more than the back and sides, the left side more than the right, or any combination imaginable. This imbalance is often not conscious. It can be the result of misalignment elsewhere in the body, a past or present injury or malady, or even emotional trauma that leaves you feeling vulnerable and guarded.
The problem with this imbalance is that, as in any other part of the body, imbalance and disproportion often lead to injuries and maladies. Imbalance in the rib cage can affect the pelvis, shoulders, neck, spine, and more. On top of that, if you are breathing in one direction more fully than another, the muscles in the region you underutilize get tight, dehydrated, and stuck. Over time, the lost mobility will lead to pain, injury, and decreased lung capacity. In order to access your full lung capacity, you must regularly engage the ribs.
What does it mean to engage the ribs? Take time out of each day to be conscious of your breath, even for just a few minutes. Start by noticing your natural breath and your natural breathing tendencies. Then, actively expand and contract the ribs. You can use a mirror to see where you more easily inhale or exhale, or better yet, place your hands on your ribs and feel the movement. If you typically breathe in the front of your ribs, try to inflate the back of your ribs. It may be harder than you imagine.
By engaging the ribs, you are making decisions about the part of your ribs to activate, and you are increasing mobility in the rib cage and restoring balance and proportion. Plus, simple breathing techniques like this are very meditative. It is one of the quickest ways to get back into your body and give yourself a break from the hustle and bustle of daily life. Insert a conscious breathing exercise like this into the middle of your hectic day or right before bed to center yourself and unwind. And the best part is that you can do this anywhere. It’s just breathing; you’re doing it anyway, so just give it some purpose!
Common maladies that affect the thoracic region include rib fractures, strains, sprains, or tears in the muscles surrounding the ribs, heart disease, high blood pressure, low blood pressure, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), emphysema, pneumonia, and lung cancer.