What Is the Diaphragm, and How Does COPD Affect It?

Changes in your diaphragm muscle are linked to worse breathing

Diaphragm
Diaphragm. Wikimedia Commons

The diaphragm is a large, dome-shaped muscle located directly below the lungs. You use it to breathe.

When you take a breath, the diaphragm contracts and flattens, which causes your chest cavity to expand. This creates a vacuum, which pulls air through your nose, down your windpipe, and into your lungs. When you exhale, meanwhile, your diaphragm relaxes and returns to its previous shape. This forces air back out of your lungs.

Older adults take between 12 to 28 breaths a minute, or as many as 40,000 breaths in a day.

Your diaphragm does much of the work involved in breathing, but your intercostal muscles — a group of 22 pairs of very small muscles located between your ribs — also play an important role by helping to expand and shrink the chest cavity with every breath.

Your Diaphragm and COPD

In people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, the diaphragm is weakened and it doesn't work as well as it should during the breathing process. This seems to be due to changes in the cells of the diaphragm muscle that cause the muscle fibers to to lose some of the force needed to contract and relax. These changes start to occur when you're first developing COPD.

When your diaphragm isn't working as well as it should, your body uses other muscles in your neck, back and shoulders to do the work of contracting and expanding your chest.

However, these muscles don't compensate fully for your weakened diaphragm, and so you have trouble breathing.

Research shows that a very weak diaphragm muscle can worsen your COPD, potentially leading to exacerbations. People with COPD — even severe COPD — who have weaker diaphragms don't do as well as people who have stronger diaphragms.

Improving Your Diaphragm Strength

It's possible to exercise your diaphragm, which can make the muscle stronger and help you breathe more easily.

The COPD Foundation recommends two breathing techniques to people with COPD: pursed-lips breathing and diaphragmic (abdominal/belly) breathing. Both can help you feel less short of breath, but diaphragmic breathing also can help to strengthen your diaphragm and enable it to take on more of the very necessary work of breathing.

The diaphragmic breathing technique is a bit tricky to learn. Therefore, you should get some instruction from a respiratory therapist or physical therapist who understands the technique and can teach it to you.

Learn more about the entire process of respiration: Take a Tour of the Respiratory System

Sources:

COPD Foundation. Breathing Techniques fact sheet. Accessed Feb. 2, 2016.

Ottenheijm CA et al. Diaphragm adaptations in patients with COPD. Respiratory Research. 2008; 9(1): 12.

Ottenheijm CA et al. Diaphragm dysfunction in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine. 2005 Jul 15;172(2):200-5.

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