It is the season for respiratory issues! Coughs, colds, sinusitis, flu, pneumonia and the like. There are lots of bugs to catch and symptoms that can trail on for weeks. Fortunately this year there has been less of the “100 day cough” that we have seen in previous winters but still we are seeing strong bouts of coughing, sinus irritation, malaise and headache. Upper respiratory infections often lead to prolonged fits of coughing which is your bodies way of clearing your lungs and throat from phlegm and chesty muck.
Have you ever considered that when you are lying in bed or pushing through your day with a hacking cough that your body is stiffening your spine and contracting your rib cage and related muscles to try to clear your airways. Your spine bends forward to a point, there is a slight pause as your muscles brace, ready for the next onslaught. Cough, cough, cough. Slight in breath (but not too much) then cough, cough, cough. Just like the bellows that blows a blacksmiths fire.
Due to this heavy and repeated work by the respiratory system, muscles in between and around the ribs tighten and the usual mechanics of the sternum, ribcage and upper and lower back may be compromised in the same way that a runners legs feel heavy after a marathon. In clinic, Dr Piers Bubbers observes that you may be feeling tightness in your chest and upper back. Your neck doesn’t turn that well, glands are swollen in your neck, you feel fatigue and struggle with shallow breathing. “It is difficult to really stand up straight and take in a full breath that fills your chest up to the collar bones.” says Dr Bubbers, “This difficulty to fully inspire and expel air can lead to stagnation in the lower portion of your lungs and is a breeding ground for bacteria.”
Did you know there are muscles which sit behind the sternum (breastbone) and pull it inwards when you cough. These muscles can become tight and hold the sternum in a retracted position even after an upper respiratory infection has resolved. There are also three layers of intercostal muscles laying in opposite directions in between the ribs which shorten or contract when coughing. These can get very strained and tender to touch after coughing for extended periods of time.
Osteopaths may help to relieve the muscle aches, pains and stiffness due to upper respiratory infections. Treatment usually involves loosening of the muscles around the sternum, ribs, spine and into the neck and lower back. Making sure that the diaphragm (the main muscle of breathing) is moving well and that the sternum is able to move up and out during a full in breath. “This incidentally allows the upper back posture to normalise and the lower back and neck to ease” says Dr Bubbers. “There are a lot of moving parts in the ribcage and therefore many structures to treat which may help to improve the efficiency of this process and may make breathing easier and reduce the severity of symptoms.”