Human Performance and Rehabilitation Centers, Inc.

Good Posture Provides Tangible Benefits

We have probably all been told at some point in our lives, more often than not by mom or grandma, that we should fix our posture or stand up straight. Well grandma was on to something there! More often than not, while working with patients who are experiencing back, neck, or shoulder pain, I will identify one or more postural deviations which are likely contributing to their symptoms. Some of the most common postural deviations that I see on a regular basis include forward head, anterior pelvic tilt, and rounded shoulders.

Ideal posture gives our body a solid foundation from which to move. The spine is naturally made up of curves with the neck and the low back arching slightly and the mid back rounding slightly. Proper posture minimizes the strain on our muscles and joints and decreases the amount of work that our muscles need to do in order to fight gravity and keep us upright. In ideal standing posture from a side view our ears should line up with our shoulders, hips and knees and there should be a slight curve outward at the mid back and inward at the low back. In a sitting position, our bottoms should be near the back of the chair with our backs supported by the chair. The knees should be bent at approximately 90 degrees (meaning many of us need to adjust our chair height) and our shoulders and neck should be relaxed.

A postural deviation that is increasing in prevalence is forward head posture. This is what it’s called when our chins are sticking out and our ears line up in front of our shoulders. This commonly occurs with reading, computer work, television viewing, and texting. We have a tendency to bring the neck/chin forward in an attempt to get our eyes closer to whatever is holding our attention. Unfortunately, prolonged forward head posture can contribute to neck tension and soreness, headaches, and tingling in the arms. Cell phones tend to bring out the worst neck posture because we often bend our necks down at significant angles while also bringing the chin forward as we read, text or play games on the relatively small screen. The perceived weight of the head increases significantly the more we bend our heads forward. An exercise that you can do to correct forward head posture is cervical retraction with a chin tilt. To perform this exercise nod your chin down just a tiny bit then bring your neck straight back as you think about lifting the base of your skull as if it were being pulled by a string tied to the ceiling. Hold for a few seconds and then relax.

A second common postural deviation is excessive anterior pelvic tilt. This often occurs as a result of tight hip flexor muscles. As a culture, we spend more time sitting than what is ideal for our bodies. We often sit for extended periods for transportation, work, and recreation/relaxation. This can enable the muscles at the front of our hips to shorten and get tight, pulling our pelvis forward. When we stand with anterior tilt, we often increase the arch in our low back as a compensation to stay upright. This can put excessive strain on the low back over time. By pulling the hips forward and the pelvis into a neutral position the back can return to its natural position. An exercise to correct excessive anterior pelvic tilt is the posterior pelvic tilt. This can be performed in multiple positions. One way to do a posterior pelvic tilt is to start lying on your back with your knees bent and the bottoms of your feet flat on the floor. From this position gently press your low back down to the floor and use your abdominal muscles to gently rock your hips back or “tuck your tail”. Another exercise which may be necessary to correct excessive anterior pelvic tilt is to stretch the front of the hips or hip flexor muscles if they are tight.

The final postural deviation that I see very frequently is rounding of the shoulders. This often shows up as a combination of the shoulder blades being far apart and the arms being rotated in so that if a person is standing with their arms relaxed by their sides their palms would be facing behind them. It is also common for people with rounded shoulders to also have a greater than usual bend in the upper back. People with this posture commonly report neck or shoulder pain. This posture puts the body in a poor position for reaching or lifting overhead. Try rounding your shoulders and slumping your upper back, then try to raise your arms overhead from that position. Now try raising your arms while sitting up tall and gently pulling your shoulder blades back. Your arms should be much easier to raise from the second position. Not only is it harder to move your arms from the rounded position but this posture makes it easier for your rotator cuff tendons to be pinched. People with proper posture have the lowest incidence of rotator cuff tears. An exercise to correct this postural deviation is scapula or shoulder blade retractions. To do this exercise stand with your arms by your sides and gently pull your shoulder blades back and together with your thumbs facing out. Hold for a few seconds then relax. Be sure that your shoulders aren’t coming up toward your ears when you do this exercise.

In order to efficiently move our limbs, it is essential to have good posture. We can decrease the strain on our muscles and joints by making small adjustments in our static and dynamic positions. Proper alignment can be one step toward decreasing pain in the neck, back, or shoulder.

Sit Up Straight: How Workplace Posture Impacts Health

For a growing number of professionals, the cumulative effects of working behind a desk can take their toll. Years of pecking away at a computer and talking on the phone can lead to a variety of issues, including headaches, stiffness, and pain in the shoulders, middle back and neck. There’s hope, though. These issues can be effectively addressed through physical therapy and by making adjustments to your everyday posture.

We see patients routinely who experience pain that we can link directly to the way they sit at work. The modern world has created all sorts of demands that don’t square with our bodies’ natural movements. We are not designed to perch in uncomfortable chairs six to eight hours a day, and as the years go by, our body rebels by expressing pain. Physical therapists address these issues by using interventions that can effectively remove stiffness. We also help patients strengthen muscles in the upper back to provide additional support to the neck and shoulders. And, we make specific recommendations for postural adjustments so that pain does not return.

Improving the way you sit at a desk goes a long way. Here are some recommendations:

  • Your feet should touch the floor completely. For people under 5’5”, this can be a challenge as most desks are made for taller people. Use a box or stool if needed.
  • You should be able to place your forearm on your desk or your elbows on arm rests while typing at a keyboard.
  • Your knees should be at a 90-degree angle when you sit, making sure your knees are in line with your hips.
  • Don’t crane your neck to talk on the phone. Use a headset.
  • Ideally, your computer screen should be at eye level.

One of the most important issues to remember is that the body doesn’t like being stagnant. Set a timer and take a “micro-break” every 20 minutes. I can hear the work-a-haulics groaning, but this doesn’t have to take long – a mere 10-15 seconds is all that’s required to stand up and stretch. It’s a simple strategy that goes a long way in protecting your health and warding off pain.

My aching back: Using physical therapy to address low back pain

If you’ve experienced low back pain, you’re not alone. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes, about 80% of American adults – both men and women – will experience low back pain at some point in their lives. For many patients, physical therapy is an effective tool in improving low back pain and restoring strength and function.

The low back, or lumbar region, is an incredibly important part of the body. Comprised of five vertebrae, the low back supports the weight of the upper body as we go about our daily lives. Multiple components have to work together for the low back to function properly. Soft cushions or discs between the vertebrae act like shock absorbers as we walk, lift, run and jump. Ligaments hold the vertebrae in place. Tendons attach the muscles to the spinal column. Finally, dozens of pairs of nerves are embedded in the spinal cord. Each of these parts works in tandem, so when something is compromised, we feel pain.

No two patients experiencing lower back pain are built exactly the same, which is why a physical therapy setting can be so effective in addressing a patient’s issues and body mechanics. Our goal is to restore normal physiological motion in the low back through tested hands-on therapy techniques that zero in on each joint. In many cases, this mechanical approach is a much more effective – and certainly less invasive – than surgery.

Some of the patients we see experience pain due to spinal stenosis, or the narrowing of spaces in the spine. This is usually caused by age, normal wear-and-tear or arthritis. As joints grow harder and more narrow over time, they can encroach on the nerves that are rooted there. When that happens, the nerves become compressed. We use techniques including traction modalities, manual therapy, joint manipulations and extension exercises both in the clinic and at home.  These therapies help give the nerves more room to function and can help reduce pain in our patients.