In today’s world we are bombarded with screen time, reading from tablets, texting, working on laptops and many other things that promote the dreaded “bad” posture. We know that posture is important yet as a society we continue to fall into the pit falls of poor habits. I see extremely healthy, active people in the clinic who come in with a myriad of shoulder and back problems which often stem from the same issue, poor postural habits. These habits are hard to break and require attention to detail as without this vigilance we will only continue to make the problem worse.
Before we can discuss a solution we need to discuss why poor postural patterns are an issue. Within the spine we have three naturally occurring primary curves.
- A concave cervical curve (area within the neck)
- A convex thoracic curve (area within the mid-back)
- A concave lumbar curve (area within the lower back)
With this in mind it is important to note that these three curves are NATURAL. The spine is not meant to be a rigid pole, it is meant to operate as a moving unit where these curves can reverse, twist and bend to conform to the positions required for us to complete our every day tasks. When these spinal curves are in balance it tends to lead to a harmonious congruence between our shoulder, hip, knee, and ankle movements as well. Although there is a general balance we want to achieve with postural habits understand that there is a variability among the ideal postures based upon differences in body type. So perhaps there is no PERFECT posture, however, there is a range of variability which has its limits. Too much time spent outside these limits of good posture can overtime lead to injury and poor movement patterns.
So how do these issues occur? The body has an incredible ability to adapt to its current situation or stresses which are placed on it. Our body is constantly looking to achieve equilibrium, both chemically and biomechanically. Therefore, we are a function of repetitive tasks. “Practice makes permanent.” Let’s put this into perspective, a study by Kenneth Hansraj (Chief of Spine Surgery at New York Spine Surgery & Rehabilitation Medicine)1 reports the force on our neck while in a neutral, normal posture is between 10-12 lbs. When we bend our head down to look at our phone, read a book, or work on our computer while laying in bed this force goes up to 60 LBS!!!! Try picking up a 60 lb kettle bell for an appreciation of the amount of strain you are putting on the joints in your neck! The more time we spend with rounded shoulders looking down, the more our spine will take on that appearance with everything we do, including lifting a barbell overhead. These poor postures are inherently NOT balanced and can lead to what is called Upper Crossed Syndrome. This syndrome is a culmination of tight chest and cervical extensor muscles (small muscles at the back of the neck) with weak, stretched out mid back and cervical flexor muscles (small muscles at the front of the neck). This improper balance can not only lead to things such as shoulder pain, headaches, neck and back pain, nerve entrapment, and upper disc injuries but can have a draining effect on performance.
Try this take home science experiment. Stand up nice and tall in a GOOD balanced posture, now raise your arms completely overhead. Notice your range of motion at your shoulder and how easy it is to perform this movement. Now adopt a forward slouched head down posture and repeat the test lifting your arms overhead. Notice a difference? There is no doubt you did not have nearly as much shoulder flexibility and your overhead movement felt forced. Now imagine completing this task while trying to attempt a snatch PR. Sure you may get the weight but at what cost to your joints and health in the long term?
Now this transition to a better posture takes time and is often not an easy one to make. Often it is met with a burning sensation in the mid back as the weak muscles struggle to maintain this position throughout the day. We also do not want to be a rigid robot that can not move. So avoid trying to tighten everything so hard that we adopt a military style posture. Try and practice these relaxed, optimal postural positions as often as you can, it will get better and easier to maintain the ideal posture for you overtime. Keep in mind the body will adapt. As it took time to adapt to our poor postural habits it will also take time to improve these postural habits.
So the next time your shoulder is feeling funky or you are about to sit down to read or complete some desk work take a moment to check in with your posture. Am I sitting up straight? Is my head in a good position? These few mindful moments towards how you carry yourself will go a long way to restoring balance within your body, avoiding injury and simply help you feel better overall.
- Hasraj K. Assessment of Stresses in the Cervical Spine Caused by Posture and Position of the Head. Surg Technol Int. 2014 Nov;25:277-9.