Shallow Chest Breathing can be a Pain in the Neck

Updated: Aug 9, 2019

By Katja Walker

Most of us know the feeling of a sore, tight neck. In fact, the neck and shoulders are one of the most common areas of our bodies in which we humans feel tension, pain and stiffness.

Factors that contribute to this are undoubtedly our modern lifestyle in which we sit endlessly at computers or laptops, carrying our heads forward in the “tech neck” position as it has been coined; lugging around backpacks or hand bags over our shoulders; sleeping on our stomachs and just the built-up tension from stressful, busy lives. However, there is something a little less obvious that may be a significant causative factor in your neck pain: the very common, but poor, habit of shallow chest breathing that most of us adults develop over time.

If you watch the way in which a baby and most young children breathe, you’ll see their bellies moving methodically in and out with each breath. By contrast if you watch most adults breathe, you’ll see their shoulders rise up and down and their chest expand. By breathing only through your chest, and not using the deeper form of “belly breathing”, you are inadvertently creating tension in your shoulders and neck, as described by Dr. Paul Salinas, a Doctor of Chiropractic in New York City: “Shallow breathing from your chest can increase the frequency of neck pain because you start using the muscles in your neck to assist with breathing.” (Giddings, 2016).

Our diaphragm and intercostal muscles between the ribs are the only muscles specifically designed for respiration. When you inhale, your diaphragm tightens and moves downwards, which increases the space in your chest cavity into which your lungs expand. The intercostal muscles in between the ribs also help enlarge the chest cavity by contracting when you inhale. Our neck muscles are NOT designed to be involved in breathing – they are only designed to move our head, neck and shoulders. However, when we subconsciously shallow breathe, our shoulders rise and fall with our chest.

The levator scapulae muscles (pictured) are the neck muscles most notably drawn into this process. They run from the shoulder blade to the cervical spine in the neck, and their function is primarily to elevate or lift the shoulders. In shallow chest breathing with the rise and fall of the shoulders, they are activated repetitively all day long. No wonder they get tired and sore!

So, do yourself a huge favour in alleviating the tension in your neck and shoulders by becoming more aware of your breathing. Take the time to practice breathing deeply (as Jason has explained) from your stomach. Over time, you’ll be surprised how calming it is and how much better your neck may feel!


Giddings K (2016), “Breathing Properly? The Harm You Could be Causing Yourself”,