The Piston of the Body

Brought to you by Creative Healing for Youth in Pain

Dr. Sylvia Orozco Silberman DO, MS
January 23, 2023 / 5 mins read

Osteopaths are applied anatomists, meaning we apply our knowledge of anatomy to palpate and treat the whole body. We hone our hands-on skills to be able to diagnose living tissue, and to assess restriction or stagnation in the body. Restrictions in the body limit mobility, and compromise the function and capacity to express appropriate physiological activity. Nerves may be firing inappropriately, lymphatic drainage may be constrained, or muscles may be painful.

Structure Matters

Every patient I evaluate gets an introduction to “the piston” of the body: the diaphragm. The diaphragm is a remarkable muscle. Anatomically, it separates the rib cage from the abdomen. The osteopath considers its function relative to its position in the body.

Here is an exercise I do with every patient:

Place your hands on your belly and take a deep breath… does your diaphragm move down, pushing your belly out? Or does your rib cage expand open above?

The diaphragm should have moved down, allowing the belly to expand. If you felt the rib cage expand, then you are using “accessory muscles” to open the rib cage to draw the air flow. These “accessory” muscles, found within the neck and rib cage are as described: accessory, and meant only to allow more air in, such as when you’re running away from a bear!

But we’re not running from a bear every day. The function of the diaphragm is to pull the lungs down so they can expand, and the negative pressure draws the air in. Airflow brings oxygen that is critical to almost every cell’s metabolic process. The diaphragm allows for an efficient air transfer and intake process, therefore serving a critical function to the health of the body.

Now that we understand the diaphragm’s role with the organ above it (the lungs), let’s discuss the other organs within the abdomen below it.

The diaphragm touches the liver, the gallbladder, the stomach, and the spleen. These organs move considerably with every inhalation and exhalation of respiration, due to their close proximity to the diaphragm. The organs that border those organs, such as the pancreas, also exhibit motion due to their location bordering the stomach. The interactions originating with the diaphragm, one could argue, go on and on.

Through the investigatory mindset of an osteopath, we ask, “Is the motion exhibited by the organ vital to its physiological function?” If the diaphragm were restricted and limited in motion, would it affect the functioning of the stomach? Absolutely.

Health is motion. Quite literally, death is the cessation of motion in the body. Everything in the body is alive and in motion. As oxygenated blood in the arteries are supplying the organs, deoxygenated blood is removed through the veins, the lymphatic system is transporting immune cells and removing excess fluid from the area, and so forth. Close your eyes and imagine all the activity and motion within and throughout the various pathways of the body.

So, we have discussed the structures surrounding and touching the diaphragm. Let’s discuss the structures that pass through it.

The diaphragm is a horizontal, dome-shaped muscle in the body, and has holes through which various structures and organs connect. The aorta branches off the heart, supplying the lower body with fresh oxygen. Another large vein brings all the deoxygenated blood back to the heart to remove metabolic waste from the lower body. The lymphatic vessels run through the diaphragm and remove excess fluid from the abdomen. Even the esophagus extends through the diaphragm to connect into the stomach. Finally, my favorite: the vagus nerve -- the largest branch of our parasympathetic nervous system -- which stimulates the body to synchronize into a “rest and digest” state.

Diaphragm Dynamics

Diaphragmatic movement affects the health and functioning of all these structures, and facilitates its activity through its motion.

The diaphragm is a singular muscle, with fibers unlike any other in the body. The diaphragm moves equally with voluntary and involuntary movement. We may move our diaphragm deliberately, as to relax and take deep breaths, but it will also move on its own, structuring the rhythm of the body.

So, if we practice mindfully moving this beautiful muscle, can it work more appropriately, even reflexively? Absolutely.

Place your hands again on your belly, follow its rise and fall with every inhalation and exhalation. Do this for 3-5 minutes.

  • Ignite “the piston” of the body to support the structure and function of the many organs to which it connects.
  • Actively participate in changing the metabolic products found in your cells and blood.
  • Optimize the function of your body and shift the state of your nervous system through the actions of the diaphragm.

What a remarkable tool to have in the architecture of the human body.