I am sure you are familiar with the look: head jutting forward, shoulders slumped, rounded upper back. This is the classic head forward posture. This posture is often a result of long hours at the computer, driving, traveling, or combination of the three. It is associated with severe neck pain, upper back pain, and limited range of motion of the shoulders, neck, and arms, migraines and headaches, and TMJ. Needless to say, it is at the root of many pain patterns, so what’s at the root of it?
Let’s look at the common seated posture: Ideally we are seated evenly on a supportive surface with lumbar support. However, even in the best scenarios, as we tire, our lower back rounds, tightening the lower back, lateral hip rotators, glutes, hip flexors and shortening psoas. Because our cervical spine (C1-C7: the part of your spine from your skull to the bump near the top of your shoulders) curve mirrors our lumbar curve (L1-L5), when the back rounds under, the neck rounds forward. As the front of the hips and abdomen passively contract, so does the front of the neck, drawing the head out over the chest and body and the shoulders up like a turtle retracting into its shell. Go ahead, try it. Sit up nice and tall, relax, take a nice big breath. Now, round the lower back. Notice what happens to your neck, head and shoulders?
Imagine over time, day after day, how sitting in this stance can mold your body into such a shape. If you’re having difficult conceptualizing this, think about people who practice yoga, or go to the gym. The repetitive motions they perform form their posture as muscles lengthen, shorten and strengthen, and that’s only an hour or two at the gym! Think of the impact that 8 hours a day curled over your computer has on the muscles of your back, neck, shoulders and arms!
Now, let’s talk muscles. As the muscles in the front of the neck contract, or shorten, they pull the neck forward and tighten the muscles in the back of the neck and shoulders causing strain and pain. With the tightening of the musculature, decreased circulation, nerve impingement and trigger point formation may occur. This can contribute to or cause migraines, TMJ, tingling and numbness in arms and hands, and upper and lower back problems.
To minimize or help reverse the effects of sustained poor posture there are a number of small changes you can make:
- At work, incorporate small breaks throughout your day. If you have a desk job, take a 60-second mental break every 20-30 minutes; take your mind off the task at hand, close your eyes and enjoy a few deep breaths. Take and a 2-3 minute body break every 60-90 minutes; get up, stretch, and/or walk to the restroom. These small breaks will help break up the day and lessen the effects of long-term holding patterns.
- Stretch, do yoga, go for a walk or go to the gym. Any or all of these will help to keep you moving, and loosen and strengthen muscles that may have become stiff or ridged through out the day. If you are unfamiliar with exercise routines there is ample information on the Internet, and most gyms have personal trainers that are willing and able to guide you in learning how to use weight machines properly.
- Explore alternative therapies. Chiropractic may be able to address issues of misalignment in the body, help to improve posture and, over time, relieve nerve compression and pain. Massage may help to loosen tight muscles and connective tissues that are contributing to pain patterns and allow fuller range of motion, lower blood pressure and heart rate. Physical Therapy can help to strengthen weakened or atrophied parts of the body; a strong foundation allows for a stronger more flexible body.