What is Poor Posture?
Poor posture is a chronic condition in the cultural times in which we live. With the prevalence of sedentary jobs, technology, and lifestyles that encourage long hours of sitting, we are becoming more prone to developing poor postural habits. Some of the more common conditions that occur as a result of poor posture are neck pain and headaches. While it may seem like poor postural habits are an unstoppable cycle, it is possible to restore proper alignment with the proper stretching, strengthening, and mindfulness techniques.
Neck Pain and Poor Posture
Proper posture can be described as a neutral position of the spine that evenly supports the rest of the body in any position, whether sitting or standing. Picture a line being drawn from the crown of your head all the way down to your feet. Your ears, shoulders, hips, and knees should be relatively even with that line. If the shoulders are rounded, the head slumped forward, or the low back curved too much, the body loses its equilibrium. Most of the tasks of modern life encourage the body to fall out of alignment–such as sitting hunched over a desk, texting, driving, and slouching in bed watching TV.
When the body falls out of alignment, there is often a chain reaction that occurs throughout the rest of the body. The skeleton and muscles of the body gradually adjust to erroneous habitual patterns and subsequently begin to adapt to the misaligned posture. The human body has an incredible ability to take the path of least resistance; if certain muscles of the body become compromised due to chronic improper posture, other muscles will take over to make up for the compensation so that the body can continue in the patterns without correction. This phenomena can result in altered joint patterns, relative flexibility, synergistic dominance, and altered reciprocal inhibition–basically, the body adopts faulty movement patterns that in turn may cause chronic pain and discomfort. One of the most commonly seen patterns of misalignment is called upper crossed syndrome.
What is Upper Crossed Syndrome?
Upper crossed syndrome involves the upper body, and is typically caused by activities involving the arms in a forward position–such as typing at a laptop, reading a book, texting, working at a desk, and driving. These actions involve the shoulders rounding, the head dropping forward, and is typically accompanied by a slump in the upper back. This position produces a chain reaction that results in shortened and tight chest and neck muscles, and weak and lengthened mid back muscles. The pattern of these symptoms creates an “X” pattern–thus the name upper “crossed” syndrome.
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Why Upper Crossed Syndrome Causes Headaches and Neck Pain
As the head drops forward when the body’s in a slouched position, more weight is placed on the cervical spine. For every inch that the head moves forward, another ten pounds is placed on the spine. With the head already weighing 10 to 12 pounds, that’s a lot of extra pressure on the nerves surrounding the spine! The cervical muscles overcompensate to hold up the neck on the posterior side of the neck, while the anterior neck muscles become weak. The extra pressure on the vertebrae in turn may compress on the nerves, causing headaches or shooting nerve pain. Because the chest muscles are also tight and the mid back muscles overstretched, you may also experience aching pain in the mid back and may feel constricted in your chest or have difficulty catching a full breath. While this habitual pattern is difficult to break, it is possible to overcome!
How to Correct Upper Crossed Syndrome and Heal Neck Pain
It is important to follow the proper sequence of stretching the tight muscles, strengthening the weakened muscles, and practicing bodily awareness consistently. Because the body has become so accustomed to the upper crossed syndrome pattern, it takes practice to retrain the upper body muscles to maintain the correct positioning. It is important to stretch what’s limited, strengthen what’s weak, and retrain the brain to hold the correct posture.
Step 1: Stretch What’s Tight
It is critical to stretch the tight muscles of the upper body before strengthening what is weak. If you jump straight to correctional strength training, the already tight muscles will restrict the weak muscles, making postural correction nearly impossible and the strength training useless. To target what’s tight, you must first know which muscles need focused on! The tight muscles to focus on stretching include: pec major and minor, teres major, latissimus dorsi, upper traps, and neck extensor muscles. See image for a visual of where these muscles are located.
Stretch 1: Doorway Stretch (Pecs/Anterior Deltoid Stretch)
Stand in the doorframe of an open door. Place your hands on either side of the doorframe, with arms either extended or bent at the elbow in a goalpost position. Lean forward into the doorframe until you feel a stretch along your chest muscles and along the front of the shoulder. Reposition your hands and arms to slightly adjust the stretch to target different areas of the muscles.
Stretch 2: Puppy Posture (Knees/Chest/Chin Pose)
Come into a bear crawl position on the floor with knees and hands in contact with the ground (like you are coming into a cat-cow pose in yoga). Walk both hands forward while keeping your knees in place, until your chest lowers to a few inches above the floor. Place your chin on the ground and look forward. Take a few deep breaths into your chest as you feel your chest muscles begin to relax.
Stretch 3: Triceps/Lats Stretch
Bring one arm up overhead and bend at the elbow like you’re reaching down your back. Keep your elbow close to your head. With your other arm, grab your elbow and gently traction backward until you feel a stretch in your tricep. Lean to the opposite side to target more of the side body and lats. Repeat on the opposite arm.
Stretch 4: Text Neck Stretch
Sit on a chair or on the ground. Place one hand under your body, keeping your arm straight and close to your body. Make sure your shoulder isn’t lifted toward your ear. With your opposite hand, reach around the back of your head and grab the base of your skull. Very gently pull your head to the opposite side and slightly down. You will feel the stretch along the back of your neck and to the side of the straight arm. Repeat on the opposite side.
Step 2: Strengthen What’s Weak
The second step to correcting upper crossed syndrome and reducing neck pain and headaches is to strengthen the muscles that are weak. As you correctively strength train, you better equip the underactive muscles to effectively hold a proper posture. In this case, the weak muscles are rhomboids major and minor, the rotator cuff, and the anterior neck muscles (scalenes and SCM). See image for a visual of where these muscles are located.
Corrective Exercise 1: Scapular Retraction (Targets Rhomboids
Scapular retraction, when used with a resistance band or light dumbbells, strengthens the rhomboids and brings the shoulder blades back into the proper position. Grasping the resistance band in both hands, reach your arms back like you are about to give someone a big hug. Focus on keeping your shoulders down and squeeze your shoulder blades together. Repeat for twelve repetitions.
Corrective Exercise 2: Chin Tucks (Targets Anterior Neck)
This exercise is simple to do so there’s no excuse to skip it! This can be practiced while driving or sitting at your desk. Sit up tall with a straight back and engaged core muscles. Imagine bringing your ears in line with your shoulders as you bring your head back and tuck your chin into your neck. Think of creating a “double chin”. Don’t worry, the double chin won’t stay! This action corrects the forward head posture that is so widespread due to hours spent texting and working at a desk.
Corrective Exercise 3: Wall Slides (Targets Serratus Anterior)
The serratus anterior muscle is one of the key muscles responsible for holding the scapula (shoulder blade) in place. “Scapular winging” is a common condition that often accompanies upper crossed syndrome and is marked by a protrusion of the scapula from the back. The goal with this exercise is to strengthen the serratus anterior muscle to help bring the scapula back into place. Stand facing a wall, and place both arms on the wall with elbows bent at a ninety degree angle straight from the shoulder. Flex your upper back slightly, protract your shoulders (round them slightly forward), and contract your abs. Slowly slide your arms up the wall keeping your elbows bent and back flexed. Don’t lean into the wall, instead, stay sturdy through your torso and only move your arms. Lower your arms back to the starting position and repeat.
Step 3: Retrain Your Brain
The final step to correcting upper crossed syndrome is to retrain your brain to hold the correct posture without thinking about it! After years of repetitive poor postural habits, the body prefers to stay in a rut and follow the easy path of least resistance. It takes intentional correctional actions to correct this cycle. Don’t worry, this process is easier than you might think!
Taping trains the body’s neuromuscular system to subconsciously correct improper posture. When the tape is applied correctly, its presence sends signals to the brain through the feeling sensation of the skin to remind it to keep the muscles in the correct position. Over time, the body will remember these new patterns and will be able to return to the proper posture without the presence of the tape.
Using a foam roller is an excellent way to retrain your body into proper positioning. Use it in static postures (postures you hold for a long period of time). This gives the body enough time to accept the new position and relax into it. Lie on the ground on top of your foam roller with it positioned vertically along your spine. Let your arms fall out to the sides, either straight or with arms bent at ninety degrees (goal post arms). Stay in this position for a minimum of two minutes in order to feel the full release in your chest and shoulder muscles.
The best way to make habits stick is to set up cues throughout your day that trigger your brain to correct your posture. For instance, every time you see someone in passing, straighten up so the first thing they notice is your confident stance. Or practice scapular retraction while waiting for your coffee to brew in the morning, or do a few reps of chin tucks while you drive. These are habits that are already built into your day, so adding a new habit on top of it should quickly become instinct.
Make It Easy!:
If your environment is conducive to bad posture, then your body will continuously return to the same old patterns. It’s like having junk food in your pantry when you’re trying to diet. Consider your mattress, that big comfy chair you eat dinner in, your desk’s height and your desk chair. Think ergonomically. Do these things encourage or discourage proper posture? How you could change your environment to better suit your goals and make building habits even easier?
How We Can Help
We offer several services at The Anatomy of Wellness that will set you on your way to success in correcting upper crossed syndrome and saying goodbye to headaches and neck pain forever!
Massage Therapy for Neck Pain:
Targeted massage therapy can do wonders for posture. An approach that follows the body’s muscular patterns by targeting what’s overly tight and encouraging structures to return to the proper positioning is an excellent way to boost the process and correct posture quickly. In a clinical massage session, cupping, taping, and stretch therapy may be incorporated to further enhance the treatment.
Corrective Exercise for Neck Pain:
We have trained therapists who are qualified to walk you through a corrective exercise treatment plan, specifically targeted at correcting upper crossed syndrome. This treatment is customized to your needs, goals, and preferences. Instead of doing it alone, consider letting us come alongside you to offer encouragement and personalized advice and help you accomplish your goals!
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