Caring for your Ribcage and Abdomen
Over the many years we have trained professional massage therapists a common trend we observed was the relatively rapid exclusion of the chest and abdomen areas from “full body” massage sequences the students would practice. Indeed, many patrons attending our Student Clinic requested those areas be left out of the itinerary. The chest and abdomen can be emotionally charged areas for many and feelings of vulnerability and self-consciousness must be honored and respected. However, that does not mean the areas should be ignored, either.
The ribcage and breastbone protect the heart and lungs, vital organs that maintain and feed our vital life processes. The abdominal cavity is surrounded by thin but strong muscles which massage the abdominal organs and help them function at their best.
Ribcage and chest
The lungs expand with each breath to take in oxygen and exchange it for carbon dioxide in the blood. This is essential for supplying the energy needs of the cells in your body. Poor lung capacity can lead to sluggish metabolism, mental fatigue and acidic buildup in the tissues. The lung tissue can only inflate as well as the surrounding protective ribcage will let it. The more flexible the ribcage and breastbone the easier and more efficiently you will breathe and the better you will feel. We are usually unaware of the importance of the ribcage and pay no attention to the duties it performs. Yet we sleep on it, lean back on it in car seats and most chairs. Some of us have been beaten on our ribcage and others have had it absorb the brunt of football tackles, rough housing with siblings – lots of stuff. Yet, unless you crack a rib and can not breathe without pain, you pay little attention to the impact it has absorbed over the years. There can be physical and emotional roots to the shortness of breath. There can also be physical and emotional responses to the loosening up of the ribcage and restoration of full breathing capacity.
The muscles between the ribs along with the respiratory diaphragm are the main force behind efficient breathing. Many other muscles attach to the ribcage which move the shoulders, neck, head and spine. Tension in these muscles can also contribute to less efficient breathing. Rounded shoulders and a hunched over posture lead to trigger points which can also restrict you from breathing at full capacity. The ribcage is suspended from the cervical spine (neck) by a muscle group called the scalenes. These muscles attach to the transverse processes projecting off the side of the vertebral body and run down to attach to the 1st and 2nd ribs. The scalenes are involved in breathing. If your chest and ribcage is tilted forward or caved in the scalenes are stretched and can be overworked. Trigger points in this muscle group cause pain and other symptoms that are felt in the shoulder, pectoral muscles, between the shoulder blades, and down the arm into the fingers.
Toned and healthy abdominal organs serve to push the respiratory diaphragm up during exhalation which results in a more complete emptying of carbon dioxide out of the lungs. Toned abdominal muscles compress and massage the abdominal organs aiding them in their efficiency. Poorly toned abdominal muscles often result in less efficient oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange and intestinal constipation. Tightness and gluing of the abdominal muscles can lead to pain in the abdominal organs, middle back, hips, and groin areas. Trigger points in these muscles can result in diarrhea and groin pain among other symptoms.
On an emotional level, the lungs have been associated with grief and expressing or repressing feelings of loss. The breath is a body function we feel we have control over and may have used as a ploy – “I’ll hold my breath until I turn blue” or “Don’t hold your breath” (as in waiting for some desired action to take place) are common sayings in our society. It is also a defensive action to hold one’s breath in stressful situations. awe have learned that each person may have stored their own emotional baggage there and allow each person to open a dialog with what they may have put there.
People often talk of “following their gut” when it comes to making life decisions and there could be some emotional baggage from the consequences of those decisions or for not following the instinct. The abdomen is a vulnerable area for many. It has long been associated with emotions. The Asian medicine books associate the various organs in the abdominal region with specific emotions such as liver/anger; kidney/fear; lung/grief, etc.
There are many therapeutic practices that revolve around the breathing process. Pranic breathing, yoga, and many more. In Asian bodywork such as acupuncture and acupressure the lung channel is paired with the large intestine channel and the healthful functioning of each is reliant on an energetic balance between the two. Cleansing the large intestine can be an effective way of cleansing the lungs (and the reverse is also true).
There is much you can do to open up the ribcage, restore pliability to the tissues and expand the capacity of the lungs with focused massage. Pay particular attention to the intercostal muscles (found between each adjacent pair of ribs) which can limit the ability of the ribs to rotate up during inhalation and rotate down during exhalation. The pectoral muscles are also important to loosen up. The pectoralis major muscle attaches along the breastbone, adjacent rib cartilages, and the inner (medial) half of the collar bone. While its major role is to move the shoulder joint, any muscle that attaches to the ribs can affect the movement of the ribs. Deep (beneath) to the pectoralis major muscle is the smaller pectoralis minor muscle. It connect the 3rd, 4th and 5th ribs to the shoulder blade (coracoid process) in front. It can pull the shoulder blade forward as in a slouching posture. It can also pull up on the ribs it attaches to, especially if you hold the shoulders stiff. Some people may do this if they have lung conditions such as asthma, bronchitis, COPD, emphysema or similar situations where they struggle to take in a normal breath. The pectoralis minor muscle is felt by pressing through the pectoralis major muscle in line with the nipple of the breast. The muscle fibers angle out to the shoulder joint.
Other muscles that you can reach on yourself include the abdominal obliques (which attach to the lower 8 or 9 ribs), latissimus dorsi (which attaches to the lower four ribs near the back), and the serratus anterior (which attaches to the sides of the upper 8 ribs) and is found under the armpit along the ribcage. These muscles can affect the movement of the ribs and should therefore be loosened up.
The abdominal area is also an important region to massage. The rectus abdominis muscle attaches the middle margin of the ribcage to the pelvis. It can affect both the movement of the ribcage, spine and pelvis. It is about 3 – 4 inches wide and found on both sides of the midline of the abdomen. The abdominal obliques are important muscles to keep toned and loose for proper function of the abdominal digestive organs. You can also trace the pathway of the large intestines to help with their healthful functioning. See the post on Constipation.
Essential oils have a long history of use for the digestive and respiratory systems. They support and enhance the function of the systems as a whole and may target specific organs within the system. Essential oils can address physical and emotional aspects of compromised function.
Some of the essential oils aiding the respiratory system include eucalyptus, hyssop, frankincense, pine and spruce. Young Living offers a variety of essential oil blends which combine a variety of oils to enhance the overall effect for the lungs and sinuses. Some of these blends include Breathe Again, R.C., Sacred Mountain and Raven.
Digestive function is benefitted by the use of the essential oils of anise, fennel, ginger and tarragon. The essential oil blend of DiTone combines many of these oils. Young Living has packaged essential oils for digestive support in Digest & Cleanse soft gels which are designed for internal use.
Respiratory oils can be diffused or applied topically. Digestive oils can be applied topically or ingested in capsules.
Their specific effects can be read about in the Essential Oil Reference books listed in the Resources section of this website.
Chapman’s Neurolymphatic Reflexes
Between many of the ribs and along the breastbone are located a series of neurolymphatic reflex areas. The tissues in these reflexes become sensitive when the lymphatic fluid flow through the associated organs or areas of the body are compromised. These reflex areas can be stimulated to help restore the lymphatic balance to the body. Read more about these reflexes here.
The ribcage reflex area encompasses the top of the foot as shown in the illustration. Remember to think 3 dimensionally when working with the reflexes…they are more than just skin deep. The lung area is on the bottom of the foot as shown in the asthma post.
The abdominal organ reflex zones are also illustrated. Working the abdominal area can also affect the overlying muscles.
Addressing ribcage tension with Spiral Synergy techniques involves exaggerating the position of an individual rib or group of ribs. Laying on the floor or a bed, perhaps the easiest thing to do is to assess the movement of the entire ribcage as it is rocked side to side. Always take the ribcage into the direction of ease and comfort. You can also alternately rock the ribcage up ad down, gently pressing down on the right side and then the left side to get a feel for which side moves more easily and comfortably. Then, gently press down on the side that likes to go down toward the floor and lift on the the other side, as if rotating the ribcage.
Should you feel a rib that is elevated or depressed as compared with the adjacent ribs and tenderness is reported when you contact the rib you can position the rib to release the tension. This involves exaggerating the position of the rib into the more comfortable direction and gently squeezing the adjacent ribs together. Sounds complicated and is really very simple once you get the hang of it.
For specific instructions and demonstrations on how to address the ribcage using Spiral Synergy you can stream the instructional video.