Your mom told you to always stand up straight - and she was right. Poor posture can lead to many problems including head, face, neck, shoulder, upper back, and arm pain. Studies have demonstrated that a forward head, increased thoracic kyphosis (rounded upper back), and rounded shoulders raise the incidence of cervical (neck), interscapular (between the shoulder blades) and headache pain. Another study demonstrated that an increased angle between the head and neck (forward head) raises the incidence of TMJ (jaw) pain and chronic tension headaches.
How does technology play into all this? With the upsurge in use of computers and cell phones (texting and e-mailing from smart phones), we spend a good portion of our day with our head, neck, and upper back in a rounded, forward head position. The more time spent in the forward head position, the greater the chance for the muscles to become adapted to this position. Eventually, this position will increase tightness and tension, which can cause vasoconstriction (restriction of blood flow) to these muscles and put increased pressure on nerves in that area.
On average, the human head weighs about 12-15 pounds. When you have a forward head posture, you put a great strain on the muscles in the back of the neck. When you compound the forward head posture with rounded shoulders, you compress all the structures that run through the front of the shoulder, which places a great strain on the muscles of the upper back. When we sit for long periods of time, lack of strength in the abdominals can cause the low back to round out, the chest to descend, and the weight of the upper trunk to shift forward.
All of these shifts and changes in body structures can result in an increased strain on the postural muscles which, in turn, puts stress on the nerves that run through these structures. Compression of the nerves that come out the back of the neck can result in facial pain or headaches. These nerves are responsible for sensation in the back and side of the head, face and jaw region. Poor posture can also compress the nerves into the arm because they exit the neck between the rib and collar bone. This can cause numbness, tingling, or pain into the arms.
So, what's the answer? Listen to your mom, and sit or stand up straight! This sounds easy, but you have to constantly remind yourself to do so. Sarah Meeks, PT, GCS states that 50 percent of the postural problem is mental, and that simply reminding yourself to sit or stand up helps tremendously.
You may, however, need an ergonomic assessment of your workstation, along with some exercises, to stretch the tight muscles and strengthen the weak muscles.
Dr. Wayne Fichter is the lead doctor at Disk and Spine Northwest, a comprehensive outpatient rehabilitation center specializing in the treatment of serious, chronic back pain, acute injuries and postural/scoliosis problems. Contact him at diskandspinenorthwest.com or (208) 215-3261.