Interrupted: we tend to inhale and hold our breath during periods of intense concentration. Photo: Stocksy
The next time you answer a batch of emails, take a minute to check how you are breathing. Chances are you might be suffering from a mild case of "screen-apnoea".
The term "screen (or email) apnoea" was first coined in 2008 by US-based former technology executive Linda Stone, who now writes and speaks about the physiology of our relationship with technology. It's a play on the term "sleep apnoea", a serious condition where sufferers stop breathing for short periods, or shallow-breathe while they sleep.
One study of 12 participants, published in the journal Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback 2009, found that when sending and receiving text messages, participants held their breath and breathed shallowly and rapidly, experiencing increased heart rate and muscle tension.
While the condition won't be found in any medical textbook, those at the forefront of treating workers' bodies verify its existence.
"When we focus intensely, such as when typing hard, we tend to inhale and hold," says physiotherapist Tania Clifton-Smith, who treats breathing- pattern disorders. "This recruits all the neck muscles to work more than they should, causing tightness in the neck and shoulders. It also trip-wires the autonomic nervous system into the fight or flight response, releasing the stress hormone adrenalin."
As well as increasing stress levels, poor breathing patterns are associated with back pain according to research conducted by the University of Queensland. In a 2006 study of more than 38,000 women, researchers found that back pain was more strongly related to breathing disorders than obesity or physical activity.
Lynette Rigney, 48, sought the help of physiotherapist Jo Keers for her back pain, which had worsened over the past 18 months. She felt pain between her shoulder blades and her lower back was extremely tight and would often jam.
Keers observed how Rigney seemed short of air and had a habit of shallow breathing into her upper chest. After just two weeks of breath retraining, which involved lying down for 10 minutes twice a day and breathing deeply through her nose, Rigney's back pain ceased. No other treatment was involved, other than practising breath awareness during her working day.
"You sometimes get a miraculous reduction in signs and symptoms within a week," says Clifton-Smith. "Typically, it takes a month for every year you have had a disorder to establish healthier breathing patterns."
So exactly how does breathing relate to back pain? The main muscle involved in breathing is the diaphragm, one of the core muscles that supports and stabilises our torso. "When we increase the load on the diaphragm through poor breathing, it loses its ability to work as a postural-support muscle," says Keers.
In other words, when the load on the diaphragm's dual function is too great, one function drops out, with breathing winning out over spinal support.
To Rigney's surprise, not only did her back pain dramatically improve after two weeks, so did a host of other symptoms, including anxiety, shortness of breath, a racing heart, disturbed sleep, feeling tired all the time, a foggy head, and irritable bowel syndrome. "I had no idea better breathing would solve all these problems," says Rigney.
Keers wasn't surprised, as all the symptoms Rigney experienced were typical of a breathing-pattern disorder, which affects about one in 10 people worldwide, women more so than men. As well as affecting our nervous system and pattern of muscle use, how we breathe also affects our biochemistry. When we shallow-breathe and breath-hold, it reduces blood flow to the brain, causing brain fog and tiredness.
"We are so addicted to electronic devices. It's a huge problem," says Clifton-Hill of screen apnoea. The antidote is daily breath and posture awareness. "Focus on the exhale first," says Clifton-Hill. "When we breathe out, it relaxes the muscles, including the heart, and signals the brain that all is well. When in doubt, breathe out."
Our natural breathing pattern is:
• breathing in and out through the nose
• into the lower chest and abdomen
• taking 10 to 14 breaths per minute
• a relaxed pause at the end of the out-breath.