The diaphragm is a muscle that helps you breathe. It sits under your lungs and separates your chest cavity from your abdomen. Many conditions, injuries and diseases can affect how the diaphragm works, causing symptoms such as trouble breathing and chest pain. Breathing exercises can strengthen your diaphragm and keep it working like it should.
The diaphragm is a muscle that helps you inhale and exhale (breathe in and out). This thin, dome-shaped muscle sits below your lungs and heart. It’s attached to your sternum (a bone in the middle of your chest), the bottom of your rib cage and your spine. Your diaphragm separates your chest from your abdominal cavity (belly).
In addition to helping you breathe, your diaphragm increases pressure inside your abdomen. This helps with other important functions, such as getting rid of your urine (pee) and feces (poop). It helps prevent acid reflux by putting pressure on your esophagus (food tube in your throat). Your esophagus and several nerves and blood vessels run through openings in the diaphragm.
Many different conditions can affect how the diaphragm works. The most common conditions include hernias and nerve damage from surgery or an accident. Neuromuscular disorders such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) can also weaken the diaphragm. These conditions can cause difficulty breathing, heartburn and pain in the chest and belly.
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The diaphragm plays a critical role in the respiratory system. When you breathe in, your diaphragm contracts (tightens) and flattens, moving down towards your abdomen. This movement creates a vacuum in your chest, allowing your chest to expand (get bigger) and pull in air. When you breathe out, your diaphragm relaxes and curves back up as your lungs push the air out.
Several nerves, soft tissues and blood vessels pass through the diaphragm. These include the:
Many conditions, diseases and injuries can affect the diaphragm, including:
Symptoms of diaphragm problems may only last a short time, or they may be permanent. They include:
Some signs of diaphragm problems are similar to symptoms of a heart attack. If you have shortness of breath, chest tightness or chest pain, get immediate medical help.
Phrenic nerve damage from trauma (either through surgery or an accident) is the most common cause of diaphragm problems. The risk of phrenic nerve damage (and muscle weakness) after cardiac bypass surgery may be as high as 20%.
Hiatal hernias are common, especially in people over 50 who have obesity. About 55% of people over 50 have a hiatal hernia.
Your diaphragm is a muscle. Just like any other muscle in your body, you can strengthen it with exercises. Diaphragmatic breathing exercises can help your diaphragm work more efficiently. They also reduce stress and help you feel better.
To keep your diaphragm healthy, you should:
If you have any symptoms of diaphragm problems, see your provider. Some symptoms are similar to signs of a heart attack. Get immediate medical help if you have chest pain or pressure or shortness of breath.
Symptoms of diaphragm problems may also be signs of other conditions. It’s essential to see your provider for an evaluation.
You have a higher risk of developing problems with your diaphragm if you have:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Your diaphragm plays a critical role in helping you breathe and keeping you healthy. Several conditions, diseases and injuries can damage the diaphragm. If you have a condition that puts you at a higher risk of diaphragm problems, talk to your provider about getting regular checkups. Get help right away if you have shortness of breath, chest pain or difficulty swallowing. You can strengthen this important muscle with special breathing exercises. These exercises help your diaphragm work as it should.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 06/11/2021.
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