Stomach gripping, also known as the ‘hourglass syndrome’ in medicine, is a common problem that can lead to many pain conditions. This is caused by tension in your upper abdomen and dysfunction of your diaphragm (the muscular that lies under your lungs).
The diaphragm can be thought of as an umbrella, which sits below the lungs at bottom of the ribcage. The diaphragm contracts towards its outer edges, which attach to the lower ribcage at both the front and back. This pulls down the middle of the diaphragm, or the spike in the umbrella. It inflates the lungs and stabilizes the spine.
The hourglass syndrome is characterized by the diaphragm contracting in the opposite direction to the center (the spike at the middle of the umbrella), which pulls the lower spines in. This creates an hourglass or narrow-waisted appearance. Another sign of the hourglass syndrome is a ‘turned-up’ belly button or horizontal crease at the level or just above your belly button. The ‘turning up’ of your belly button can be a sign that there is a muscle imbalance in the abdominal muscles. This happens when the upper abdominal section works harder than the lower and pulls the belly button upwards. You may wonder what the problem is. I don’t think a tight stomach or narrow waist is so bad! BUT this altered pattern of muscle activation may have far-reaching consequences.
The lower back’s stabilizer, the diaphragm, is critical. If it doesn’t work properly, the lower back becomes vulnerable. The diaphragm’s dysfunction means that other muscles, especially the extensors of your lower back, will have to work harder. The image opposite shows the large sausage of extensors and thick red arrows. These muscles are working overtime to support the patient’s head as he raises his head. We would like to see more balance in the activity of these muscles, and less sausage. These muscles can become tight and painful if they are constantly overworked.
Stabilization and breathing will be affected if the diaphragm does not descend correctly. This can put a lot of strain on the neck. As mentioned above, the diaphragm’s center should be pointing downwards. This will expand the abdomen (belly breathing) and inflate the lungs. In the hourglass syndrome, this normal pattern of motion doesn’t occur and, in most cases, when breathing in, the chest and shoulders elevate instead to compensate. This puts a lot of stress on the muscles of the neck and is a common factor in headaches and neck pain.
The diaphragm is responsible for breathing and stabilizing, as well as acting as a sphincter. This prevents stomach contents from returning to the esophagus. Recent research has shown that people suffering from GERD (gastroesophageal acid reflux disease) may have decreased diaphragmatic function. This could be a factor in GERD treatment.
This hourglass syndrome or stomach gripping can be explained by three main reasons:
1. Poor habits/ aesthetics
Everyone wants a flat stomach, but holding on to the stomach can cause an imbalanced activation and the stomach to work much harder. Your brain may ‘rewire’ itself from the normal pattern of stabilization to this altered form if you do this for a prolonged period. It’s a bit like a virus corrupting your computer program.
2. Development that is not ideal
Sometimes, the “program” of muscle activation doesn’t work right from the beginning. It is believed that this happens in 30% to 33% of infants . Babies may develop abdominal gripping as a way to compensate for their injuries, which can continue into adulthood.
3. Protective patterns
Stomach gripping may occur as part of muscle guarding after a painful injury. It can continue long after the pain has subsided. Muscles learn after injury tissues heal. They quickly develop ways to protect themselves that last longer than the injury.
First, you need to relax your abdominal muscles. It can be difficult to relax your upper abdominal muscles in seated standing positions.
The best place to start is the position on all fours (shown below). Relax your stomach by adopting this position. Imagine dropping your stomach to the floor. Next, relax and take a deep breath. This will expand your stomach and the side of your ribs. Your stomach should move towards your thighs, but your shoulders shouldn’t lift. Relax your stomach and breathe out. This breathing pattern can be repeated for between 3-5 minutes and 3-5 times a day. This breathing pattern can be integrated into your daily movements and postures – standing, sitting, and driving – once you have it down.
Are you a stomach gripper? Are you prone to the neck, back, or GERD pain? Please contact us today.