Health and Disability · Invisible illnesses

The health values of blowing up a balloon that I never guessed at.

Yesterday I put a link to a study looking at the clinical value of blowing up a balloon as part of a physio regime. 

Here’s the full study so you can have a read,

but if you want the highlights…read on.

I’ve known The North East Body Mechanic (NEBM AKA Steve) for a few months and he’s always avoided offering me advice as I don’t really fall into his remit and its hard to know if what he does would make any difference to me or not. As he has a similar perfectionist personality to mine he only wants to work with me if he is sure that it’s going to help. I convinced him recently that I don’t care if what he does works or not, I just want to try it because I feel like I’m deteriorating in terms of my pain and fatigue levels. If I’m doing something proactive to try and help myself then I figured it would benefit me whether I actually got any definitive results or not. 

During the assessment session we decided to work on my hiatus hernia and see if improving that, increasing my breathing capacity and working on my childhood head trauma would help with my general fatigue, pain levels and stability when moving around. I had my first session with him this week and after a very painful 2 hours of testing and fiddling around and general voodoo type things like zipping myself up and down to affect my strength (He’s really wierd)….he gave me the homework of blowing up a balloon. 

We practised together and he sent me the link to the study so that I could have a read up and see why I was spending time blowing up balloons and lying on the floor breathing into my stomach.

The study is really interesting, and although it is focused on athletes, there has also been some work done with patients suffering with chronic pain conditions. Basically the muscles that are used for breathing also work to help with your postural stability and poor breathing and posture can be linked to musculoskeletal complaints. (See table 1 in the study) It says that by focusing on improving the “Zone of apposition (ZOA), the muscle shaped like a dome/umbrella” you can improve your breathing and help with stability as well.

By looking at rehab programmes using stabilisation exercises in patients with lower back pain, their pain decreased, but it didn’t cure the problem and the pain generally comes back. leading the researchers to believe that by adding in exercises to improve the breathing capacity of patients and effectively reeducating the patient on how to breath and stand/sit could reduce the frequency of reoccurring problems. Thus the “90/90 Bridge with Ball and Balloon” technique comes into play.

A bit of background – The diaphragm controls our breathing, but unbeknownst to me it also helps with spinal stability. Researchers found that when we move our bodies in certain ways the diaphragm controls postural stability (This is something I’m really interested in as I’m getting really wobbly when I’m walking and I’m thinking that I need a walker instead of my stick, so if I could improve my stability, (something my physio has been working on as well through Pilates exercises to strengthen my core muscles), that would be a huge help to me. I don’t really want to have to deal with adapting mentally to having a walker at 39 years old at the minute) If you are in a bad postural position then the diaphragm can’t get enough air in and we automatically start to use alternative breathing techniques to support ourselves, and get into bad habits. 

Since speaking to Steve (NEBM) I have noticed that I breathe into my chest, its shallow breathing and I also hold my breath a lot. This obviously means that Im not getting enough air into my body and all of my cells will be struggling to manage due to decreased oxygen…scary thought…does my breathing have such a huge affect on my health? 

The study says that “…more upper chest breathing and less efficient diaphragm activity” (Sounds like me!) “If the body maintains this position and breathing strategy (I’m also sticking my ribs out further than they should be because of this chest breathing) for an extended period of time, the diaphragm may adaptively shorten and the lungs may become hyperinflated” Well this sounds like fun! I’ve basically shortened my diaphragm and affected my lungs and by default my entire body by breathing the wrong way for who knows how long!!!

Well at least I have an answer! The method for the Balloon breathing technique is fully explained in the study, but I’ll give you the shortened version. You lie on your back, feet flat against a wall so your legs are bent at a 90 degree angle and you push down on your heels and tilt your pelvis up so that your back is flat on the floor. Steve didn’t give me a ball, so I’m doing the balloon only version. You have the balloon in your mouth with your tongue against the roof of your mouth. The balloon is supported with one hand. This angle helps get your pelvis, ribs, spine, in the right position, glutes and hamstrings extend your hip extensors and shortening your abdominal length helps to increase your diaphragm length so your ZOA is bigger thus getting more air into your lungs. 

Once your in the correct position you breathe into your stomach through your nose and exhale into the balloon. Then by putting your tongue against the roof of your mouth you can continue to inhale through your nose and exhale into the balloon until its full. I’ve been told to do this at least twice a day for the next 2 weeks until I go back to see Steve and we can see if its helping.

The study has some examples of improved functionality as well as pain levels reducing and increased lung function (tested through Spirometric tests mine was about 10 points lower than Steve’s when we first did it…I can’t remember the exact results but I’m sure he’s written them down so that we can compare them at my next appointment.) These results came from patients with a variety of conditions ranging from COPD, Asthma, Sciatica and Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. Results for stabilising the spine and pelvis and improving posture have not been fully researched as yet, but the results that they do have look pretty impressive. I’ve got some hope for this exercise and the expertise of the NEBM to see if it helps with my core strength and stability, as well as any benefits I get from getting more oxygen into my body. 

I find the exercises engaging and also relaxing as I am focusing on my breathing, thus the tirade of negative self talk is quietened for a while. I’m getting benefits already, so even if it’s just that I’ve tried something else that might help me, I’m pleased that I’m trying, and we’ll just see what happens!

If you think the North East Body Mechanic might be able to help you, or someone you know then here’s his website

Vic xx

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