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Unlocking the Power of the Diaphragm: 3 Key Functions You Should Know


In today’s blog post, we’re going to dive deep into the world of a crucial anatomical structure in our bodies: the diaphragm.

Visceral Mobilization

Specifically, we’ll be focusing on the thoracic diaphragm.

This often overlooked muscle plays a pivotal role in our overall well-being, and understanding its functions can have a profound impact on our health.

1. The Diaphragm’s Role in Breathing

Imagine your diaphragm as an open umbrella positioned at the base of your ribcage.

It spans the entire area between your thorax and abdomen, acting as a barrier between the two. What makes the diaphragm unique is its central tendon, which is suspended within the muscle itself. When the diaphragm contracts during inhalation, it pulls on the central tendon, causing the umbrella-like structure to flatten downward toward your abdomen. This action serves two critical purposes:

  • Drawing in Air: As the diaphragm contracts, it creates a negative pressure in your lungs, allowing you to draw air deep into your lungs. This is the primary function of the diaphragm in breathing.


  • Increasing Intra-Abdominal Pressure: Simultaneously, the diaphragm’s contraction increases intra-abdominal pressure. This pressure plays a vital role in stabilizing your core and supporting your spine.

However, in many cases, people rely too heavily on accessory muscles of breathing, such as the scalenes, sternocleidomastoid, pectoralis major, upper trapezius, and external intercostal muscles.

This overreliance can lead to several issues, including a weakened diaphragm, altered breathing dynamics, myofascial tension in accessory breathing muscles, core weakness, limited ability to inhale fully, and posture problems.

2. Core Strength and Intra-Abdominal Pressure

Your diaphragm serves as the roof of your core, connecting with various stabilizing muscles, including the transversus abdominis, pelvic floor muscles, local spinal stabilizers, and deep hip stabilizers through a network of fascia.

When your diaphragm consistently contracts with each breath, it creates a downward force into your abdomen, which, when coordinated with the rest of your core muscles, generates intra-abdominal pressure.

This pressure not only supports your body against gravity but also controls localized spinal, pelvic, and hip mobility.

Maintaining optimal intra-abdominal pressure can alleviate pressure on commonly irritated structures such as joint surfaces, intervertebral discs, and spinal nerves. It’s a crucial element of a well-functioning core.

3. The Vagus Nerve and Parasympathetic Activation

Within the diaphragm’s muscle belly, several structures, including the vagus nerve, pass through. The vagus nerve is known as the master controller of the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system.

This branch promotes the “rest and digest” state, which is essential for relaxation and reducing chronic pain responses.

Incorporating diaphragmatic breathing into your routine can stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting relaxation and helping to alleviate chronic pain. In a world often dominated by stress and the “fight-or-flight” response, this is a valuable tool for overall well-being.

Taking Action for a Healthier You

If you suspect that your diaphragm function is related to areas of dysfunction in your body, there are steps you can take:

  • Breathing Exercises: Learn to inhale properly into your belly while keeping your chest still. This foundational skill can be practiced and integrated into more dynamic movements.
  • Core Stabilization: Focus on reconnecting your diaphragm with your body’s stabilization response. Start with isolated positions and progress to more dynamic movements.
  • Address Soft Tissue Restrictions: Investigate and address any soft tissue restrictions that may be hindering your diaphragm’s function. This may involve muscles and fascia in your abdomen, lower back, hips, and even the diaphragm itself.

Incorporate these concepts into mindfulness and breathwork practices or integrate them into your daily routine.

You might be surprised at the positive changes you start to feel as your diaphragm begins to play its vital role in optimizing your health and well-being. See us at Rebalance Physical Therapy for more information!

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