FF 16: Develop the best breathing habits for a healthy life

Dean O’Rourke lets us in on the secret of breathing properly to promote health and well-being for the whole family.


Dorte Bladt: I’m so excited to have this next speaker with us today. I saw a young person come into my practice the other day and they had just found this guy in… well, actually, they’d been recommended to see this guy and I was like, whoa, I found someone in Newcastle. So I’m so pleased.

Thank you for joining us this morning. This is Dean O’Rourke. I’m really pleased to have you here.

Dean O’Rourke: Thank you.

Dorte Bladt: Tell us a little bit about yourself?

Dean O’Rourke: Well, my health journey has been an interesting one. I started out as a Health Phys Ed teacher many years ago after doing it at Newcastle Uni. I found I was getting more and more interested in the health side of things and less and less interested in the sports side of things.

But what happened to me is I developed a very severe and chronic case of hay fever. I was suffering it all year round, not just in spring but all year round, taking all of the drugs that the doctor was giving me and getting sicker and sicker and it just seemed like there was no end to it. So in utter desperation, I went looking for answers.

When I started doing that, it changed the course of my life, essentially cured myself of the condition. I’ve been medication-free and symptom-free for many years now. And it changed my career, what I do.

Dorte Bladt: Excellent. So what do you actually do?

Dean O’Rourke: I specialize in breathing and orofacial function. So I help people with any breathing-related problem, any chronic respiratory problem, or any problem that they might have related to that. It’s a very specialized area. There’s not many people that do what I do.

Dorte Bladt: No. It’s so exciting you’re here.

Dean O’Rourke: So I’ve been doing it for over a decade now in Newcastle and on the Central Coast.

Dorte Bladt: When you say that you’re specializing in breathing, it’s one of those things we do many times a day and we could sort of lift our eyebrows and say, “You know what? I’ve done it for many years now.”

So tell us a bit about what you’re looking for.

Dean O’Rourke: That’s often the way people think about breathing and the reality is there’s a lot of misconception about breathing and a lot of misinformation as well. A lot of people do think it’s just something you do and you just stop doing it one day.

Dorte Bladt: Hopefully not too soon.

Dean O’Rourke: That’s right. But the reality is there is a right and wrong way to breathe and, when I discovered that, a whole new world opened to me. The reality is that dysfunction can range from mild through severe. It can happen at any age. And if you are on the dysfunction spectrum, it can lead to a whole heap of health problems, well, problems people suffer.

Genetics plays a role in that, or maybe the severity of it, but, very often, the trigger or the path they go down is because of their breathing function. The reality is you’re breathing 24/7. So if it’s not right, it’s affecting you 24/7. It’s the foundation of your health.

Most people you ask them what the two most important things to their health are, they would say diet and exercise. As important as those two things are, I’m not in any way saying they’re not important, but the reality is breathing is well in front than those two things. The only thing that comes close to breathing in terms of critical function, in terms of what you need to do to promote it would be hydration. And hydration is a distant second to breathing, still.

But most of us just take breathing for granted and we’re unaware of how much it may be affecting our health. But lots of people who come to me they’re very aware of how it affects their health.

Dorte Bladt: So what type of people would consult you?

Dean O’Rourke: I’ve worked successfully from 4 to 88 years, people from all walks of life, but the ones that come to me get referrals from the medical system or a small group of doctors who refer to me. So I might get an asthmatic, people with hay fever, people with snoring, sleep apnea, sleep disorders, anxiety, panic attacks, chronic pain.

I’ve worked for a pain specialist because he’s discovered that it works really well to help people there.

Dorte Bladt: So it sounds like a lot.

Dean O’Rourke: Yes.

Dorte Bladt: It’s a long list and it doesn’t seem like there’s much connection between those.

Dean O’Rourke: No.

Dorte Bladt: So what do you find, apart from the fact that everyone’s breathing but…

Dean O’Rourke: Well, what I find is that regardless of the medical tags they’re wearing, and it can even be orthodontics as well, they can have orthodontic problems as a result of breathing dysfunction. Regardless of what medical tags they’re wearing, whether it’s a child or an adult or teenager, whatever, I find the same functional problems over and over again. The breathing dysfunction that I come across is pretty much the same thing every time and that’s what I seek to fix every time.

Essentially, what that is, is that so many people, through no fault of their own, it’s just the way it is, develop breathing dysfunction normally where they’re using mouth breathing too much. So they might be breathing overnight, mouth breathing, or they might do a lot during the day, or both. Then that develops an upper thoracic pattern, so they end up…

Dorte Bladt: Upper thoracic meaning upper chest.

Dean O’Rourke: Upper chest. So their breathing then is shortened up between mouth and upper chest. The diaphragm is not working very much and the nose is not being utilized enough. Once you develop that pattern, once that becomes a habit, then it’s pretty much just spin the genetic wheel and see what trouble you get regardless of what age you are.

Dorte Bladt: And what is the link between the different types of conditions that people may have and their abnormal breathing? What’s the process?

Dean O’Rourke: It varies from condition to condition. In some cases, breathing dysfunction might be the causative or the root cause problem, resulting in their symptoms or their condition, or it may just be an amplifying factor. But what I found is it doesn’t really matter which it is. The bottom line is they need to breathe functionally.

I found that it’s been very beneficial regardless of whether it’s the root cause or whether it’s just an amplifier. It can make that much of a difference.

Dorte Bladt: And what is the defect? What system does it interfere with?

Dean O’Rourke: If your breathing is dysfunctional, anything from mild to severe, what you’re starting to do is switch on the adrenals harder. So you’re getting the fight-or-flight or the sympathetic nervous system kicking into gear on a 24/7 basis even whilst you’re trying to sleep. If that’s starting to happen then you’re switching on the inflammatory response in your body on that basis as well 24/7. Then once that’s happening then it really just becomes an issue of what it is you’re going to suffer and how badly.

Dorte Bladt: So the fact that the body is in that state of inflammation is just the beginning. That is fascinating, absolutely fascinating.

I went to a conference a couple of years ago and there was a very interesting dentist that basically was talking about re-educating a baby to breathe after having tongue-tie cut. He suggested using these taping things.

Dean O’Rourke: Techniques, yeah.

Dorte Bladt: Yeah. Do you do that? I have to admit I found it a little bit hard to work with babies in taping their mouth.

Dean O’Rourke: Yeah. With taping, I use it as a part of my gambit of strategies. It’s certainly not a one-size-fits-all thing. So each person I’ll design a program to fit their needs, which may or may not involved taping, and how you go about taping can vary a lot. Some people only need it very temporarily. Other people need it longer term.

But, with taping, what people need to understand is that it’s not actually taping someone’s mouth shut, it’s actually just a message sender. You got to use a particular type of tape. It’s a part of an overall 24/7 therapy so it’s not the big deal that some people sometimes think it is. As I said, not everyone who comes to me even uses it.

I have had few people, though, that have used it and fallen in love with it and they never stop. My wife has been taping for years. My son has been taping for years. I’ve had people come in and buy a box of tape and walk out. I assume they’re lifetime users too. And that’s okay. If they want to, that’s fine. But, normally, it’s a very temporary thing.

Dorte Bladt: So how do you know that the work you’re doing is making a difference? So when people come in and talk to you…

Dean O’Rourke: When people come to me for an initial consult, I go through an assessment process that I’ve developed based on clinical observation, filling out a fairly extensive symptomology form.

Then I have biofeedback testing as well. So they are linked to my computer by a cannula that just sits just inside the nose. They go through this step-by-step assessment process so I know A. are they breathing disordered, or is their dysfunction, how severe it is. Then that will determine what I came up with in terms of what they need for therapy.

If they go ahead and get my help then they’re retested on a few occasions. To be able to get post-measurement so they can clearly see how much their breathing has changed.

Dorte Bladt: Okay. So just help me here, so this biofeedback mechanism, so you have some sort of sensor sitting in your nose so you can sense how much air goes through your nose compared to what you would expect?

Dean O’Rourke: The system I use is known as capnometry. What it measures is a couple of critical things. The breathing speed, so what their respiratory rate is, their end-tidal CO2 or carbon dioxide levels it measures as well, and it shows me whether there’s any disruptions in their breathing pattern.

It’s measuring them breath by breath. It’s completely not an invasive thing at all. It’s in no way painful or anything. It’s quite an easy test to sit through. Most people just sit there and chill out and sort of some have even nearly dropped off to sleep. So it’s just measuring their breathing pattern normally for about 6 to 7 minutes.

I get them to do a couple of different things as well just to see what happens to their breathing under different conditions. So it’s a snapshot of their breathing pattern and it allows pre- and post-measurement, which is handy.

But I know whether they’ve got a breathing problem pretty much as soon as they walk through the door.

Dorte Bladt: You can?

Dean O’Rourke: I have 10 years of doing it. And it’s kind of funny socially because I just assess people’s breathing automatically. My wife is often nudging me… or something like, “Don’t you say anything…”, sort of thing.

It gets very hard to switch off once you dial in the breathing because everyone does it and they take it with them everywhere they go.

Dorte Bladt: Absolutely. Goodness. My understanding is that our breathing rate, which we just talked about.

Dean O’Rourke: Respiratory rate.

Dorte Bladt: Yeah. Has changed a lot over the last 20 years or so.

Dean O’Rourke: Yes. It’s a very good point you raise. The reality is, at the moment, as far as I’m aware, the medical system they come across a respiratory rate in the mid-teens. They would think that’s completely normal. It certainly is average. There’s a lot of people breathing at that speed.

So for many doctors I suspect they would think that that’s okay but, in my years of clinical practice and through the research that I’ve been involved with and seen, there is more and more evidence to show that that is too fast and that people, even children, should be breathing slower. But certainly, for an adult, between 4 and 10 breaths a minute at rest is the optimal zone. There are not many people in that zone. Not many people.

What I found is that once I get a person from that sort of higher speed down into the 4 to 10 zone as a habit, so it just becomes automatic, that’s when the symptoms change. That’s when they go from having symptoms to not having symptoms, or having a lot less.

Dorte Bladt: So they go from that living in that fight-and-flight response down to the parasympathetic.

Dean O’Rourke: Parasympathetic. Exactly.

Dorte Bladt: Which is the rest and digest.

Dean O’Rourke: That’s right. Exactly.

Dorte Bladt: Then just from memory, and I could be wrong, but I seem to remember they were saying that 20 years ago, 12 breaths per minute was normal and now it’s like 20?

Dean O’Rourke: Yeah. The speed has gone up. I think there is some evidence out there that there has been an increase over time, and I think modern life is contributing to that. So many people are running on adrenalin and so I think there probably would be some overall increase, average increase. And, certainly, once you’re hitting 20 breaths a minute or more, you’re in trouble.

The fastest I’ve measured on my biofeedback system was 36 breaths. That person was very, very sick.

Dorte Bladt: It sounds like someone that’s been running too rough, is it?

Dean O’Rourke: That’s right. And when your speed is getting up into those, as I said about 20 in particular, you’re going to be in trouble. But plenty of people are in trouble with speeds well below that.

Dorte Bladt: So is the breathing then the chicken and the egg? Like how would you address…

Dean O’Rourke: Yeah, good question. I think in the end it doesn’t really matter whether it’s the chicken or the egg. The reality is you’ve got to address it. So if someone comes to me, let’s say, with anxiety, and they’ll be saying to me, “Oh, is it my head doing it or is my body doing it to my head?” In the end, it doesn’t really matter. What you want to do is address one side of the equation or the other.

I found that the simplest thing to do is change the way you breathe. By changing that, it will have an impact regardless of whether it’s the chicken or the egg.

Dorte Bladt: I have to admit I’m feeling incredibly self conscious here. I’m thinking crap, I’m sure I’m not breathing 4 breaths a minute right now.

So how do you deal with a child? Let’s say a child is maybe hyperactive. And not necessarily with the diagnosis but they’re hard to manage. How would you address it…?

Dean O’Rourke: Well, it’s going to depend a lot on exactly how old they are. If they’re middle childhood, sort of primary school age, I find that I can work with them not that dissimilar to older people. I can keep it fairly standard. But as they’re getting younger then the strategies I have to use change and the process may become slower.

But the earlier people find out about it, the better. If it’s a really young child, someone that is not ready to be able to work with me, what I often do is I fix the parents. By getting the parents breathing well, they start the education process with their child. And that has worked brilliantly. I fixed mom and dad, or mom or dad, and then the child gets involved when the adult is going through the process and their breathing starts to change as a result.

Dorte Bladt: It just goes to show how close we are. But I don’t think we actually recognize that we, in the family, we just feed off each other.

Dean O’Rourke: That’s right. Look, I find breathing dysfunction runs in families. It’s just, as you mentioned earlier, the speed of respiratory rates going up across the community. Breathing dysfunction is a silent epidemic. The reason it’s silent is it’s because it’s generally not on the medical radar. So lots of people don’t discover that they have a breathing functional problem.

Dorte Bladt: It’s such a subconscious thing.

Dean O’Rourke: That’s it. So they just have these symptoms treated normally with medication. And lots of people are being diagnosed with sleep disorder breathing now so that they are strapped to CPAP machines and things like that, and they never discover that they actually had a 24/7 breathing habit that’s not right and needs to be fixed. So, sadly, most people are just having their problem managed at best while trying to reduce symptoms rather than fixing the problem.

Dorte Bladt: So what do you do? You obviously, from what you’re saying, do not really like to give them medication. You would have another…

Dean O’Rourke: Yes. I’m not giving anyone medication. I’m not selling them a CPAP machine. What I’m doing is going through a simple step-by-step process of breathing habit change that I’ve developed over many years now and I tailor it to meet the needs of that particular person, depending on their age and whatever. Sometimes their pathology and medical condition can change how I have to go about it.

So I basically come up with a process normally, where they see me, most people see me once a week for four weeks, actually, and they walk out the door with their instruction sheet. They’ve learned exactly what they need to do and they go through that process. I support them and encourage them along the way, make change if I need to.

And most people’s breathing has been altered significantly in that first month. Then it just becomes so much easier and simpler after that as well.

Dorte Bladt: So basically it’s a question of diagnosing from your point of view where you’re not breathing well. Try to do this type of breathing and then go home and practice.

Dean O’Rourke: Well, they actually don’t have to think about breathing, funnily enough. They just have to follow my instructions and their breathing will change. It is quite simply just habit change. I just give them a set of instructions to help them change their breathing habit. They learn step by step what they’re going to be doing when they walk back out the door and we just touch bases each week for a few weeks. I’ll know when the job is done because it’s a very measurable process.

Dorte Bladt: Excellent. And can you share a funny story from your practice?

Dean O’Rourke: I’ve had quite a few. Probably one of the most interesting things when you do change someone’s breathing pattern, there’s a small percentage of people who can have some strange responses, physical responses.

There was one fellow I had who had been mouth breathing for many, many years, very chronically. And when he started to change his breathing pattern and started to nasal breathe, his gums started to bleed. They bled for about three days before they settled down. So that’s one of the more unusual that I’ve seen in the 10 years I’ve been doing this.

Dorte Bladt: Oh, my goodness.

Dean O’Rourke: So he thought that was pretty weird. But there’s one other quick story I’ll give you is three women came and saw me about a year apart. The strange thing was they’re all the same age. All three were 52. They had been, unbeknownst to me, menopausal for about four years. They came to me for three different problems: asthma, snoring, and anxiety. We fixed all three but, in each case, they started their cycle again. Two of them were not impressed.

Dorte Bladt: That is so much.

Dean O’Rourke: The first time it happened, it happened within a week of starting therapy. The second time it was a week again. And then the third woman who had asthma it took a month for her cycle to show again. She was chilled out about it. She was okay, but the other two were not happy, let me tell you.

Dorte Bladt: I’m interested to hear. I know you talked about inflammation here, but what would be the process of being …?

Dean O’Rourke: That’s a good question. The first time it happened I thought maybe it’s a coincidence. Then it happened again, then it happened again. And these women changed nothing else. All they changed was their breathing pattern. They didn’t change their diet. They didn’t do anything else.

So my theory is that they’d gone, once again, from that sympathetic dominance into a parasympathetic state. And I think the body then goes well, we’re now in a state of rest. We can reintroduce functions or systems that have been shut down. So just once they got into that position then the system kicked back in.

It never ceases to amaze me what breathing can affect. It really does.

Dorte Bladt: Now, I’m obviously going off in a complete sidetrack here, which would be interesting then with the growing number of young couples that have trouble falling pregnant. You wonder.

Dean O’Rourke: Yeah, good question. I do wonder. I would say that there would be a percentage of, but no idea what, but there would be a percentage of people out there who are struggling in that area. Maybe all they need to do is change the way they breathe. Isn’t that amazing?

Dorte Bladt: Interesting. Do you have a piece of advice or a couple of pieces of advice for people that are listening into that?

Dean O’Rourke: Absolutely. The first thing I would say is check it. Have a look. Do I get around with my mouth open a lot or do I comfortably lip seal? How much nasal breathing am I really doing? And that’s awake and asleep. A lot of people have mouth breathing when they’re asleep and that’s a particular worry.

So checking yourself a bit. Get someone to look outside onto you and see whether your chest is moving when you’re breathing it should be sitting still at rest. There should be no chest movement, where everyone that comes to me they’re breathing from the upper chest.

So a bit of a check. Then if you see that things are not right, well then you’re going to have to think about whether or not you might get some help. But the first thing you should do is start to work towards lip seal. A lip seal habit is what develops a nasal breathing habit. That’s the number one thing that everyone should establish. That, to me, is more important than diet and exercise because breathing is 24/7.

Dorte Bladt: Breathing sure is 24/7. Excellent. Thank you so much for sharing your time this morning.

Dean O’Rourke: No worries.

Dorte Bladt: Tell us again where can people find you if they want to know more.

Dean O’Rourke: I work a few different clinics but the one locally I work at ATUNE Health Centres in Warners Bay. We’ve got a website. They can just Google ATUNE or ‘breathing therapy’ and you’ll find me there. That’s where I can be located.

I also work in the city at the Hunter Pain Clinic. So there’s a few places where people can catch up with me.

What I say to people is if you’re not sure or you know you’ve got an issue, just come for an assessment. Come for that assessment and you can ask as many questions as you like. You’ll be able to make an informed decision on whether or not you go ahead with therapy. If you don’t have the assessment then you’re not able to make an informed decision.

Dorte Bladt: That’s right. And your name again?

Dean O’Rourke: Dean O’Rourke.

Dorte Bladt: Excellent. Thank you so much for your time.

Dean O’Rourke: No worries. Thank you.