These days, so much of our activity happens in front of our body. Working at a desk, carrying kids, texting, doing household chores – and that reaching forward can add up over time to some slouchy shoulders, along with aches and pains. This slouchy posture is called “Upper Crossed Syndrome” or hyperkyphosis (due to the increased kyphotic curve in our upper back).
It’s a common complaint – one that we see every day in both the training and massage sides of our business. The good news is, you can take action today to start working towards a pain-free life!
What does it look like?
Along with the aches and pains we experience in our upper back and neck, you’ll notice your shoulders start to round forwards (ranging anywhere from very slight angle to full on hunchback), and the center of your ear is no longer stacked in line with your shoulders and hips. Because your spine is connected to your sternum (chest bone) and rib cage, when the back starts to round forward, the whole canister shifts with it, angling forward and down (we’ll talk more another day on how that affects our breathing pattern).
This picture from canfitpro’s Foundations of Professional Personal Training, 2nd ed. gives us an idea of what this looks like in real life:
What causes it?
As we alluded to earlier, the biggest factors that contribute to our posture woes are the activities that we do day in and day out. Sitting at a desk, texting, breastfeeding, carrying boxes, physical labour, washing dishes, driving…the list goes on. We don’t perform many tasks reaching our arms behind our back; and because of that, our musculature becomes unbalanced.
The muscles of our chest become tight and are constantly in a shortened position due to the slouching forward of our shoulders. And, because every action has an equal but opposite reaction, this means the opposing muscles in our back (particularly those between the shoulder blades) are constantly overstretched. This constant lengthened position makes it harder to contract those muscles to bring those shoulders back, and so those muscles become quite weak. The other sneaky muscle that can contribute to the slouching shoulders is the big Latissimus Dorsi muscle, which comes from the mid and lower back up to our shoulder. Meanwhile, in our neck, the muscles along the back of our neck become shortened and tight, while the muscles along the front become overstretched and weak.
How can massage help?
Massage therapy uses manual techniques to help our muscles and nervous system relax and recover from injury or dysfunction. In this case, having a deep therapeutic treatment to your chest, lower back, and neck can help to release some of the tension carried in those muscles, and give some temporary relief from pain. It can be a great tool to help manage symptoms when stretching and self-massage just isn’t cutting it.
One misconception, though, is that having a massage will “fix” this posture. I wish I could say my hands were that magical – alas, they are not. The release you feel from your massage basically gives you a window of opportunity, to use the stretching and strengthening homecare provided (yes, you really are supposed to do those) to make a more lasting impact on those muscles. If you get a massage and proceed to go right back to your daily habits that caused that pain in the first place, with no other measures taken on your own, you can’t expect to make forward progress towards a pain-free life. You can, however, expect to be making another massage appointment next month in hopes of feeling that temporary relief again. As much as that may seem like an appealing business model to keep me busy, I’d rather celebrate with my clients when they feel better and can see me less!
How can exercise help?
Becoming more active, and getting yourself up out of that seated position, will be a big step forward in itself. Beyond that, we can target the weak/tight muscles discussed above with strength and mobility work to provide more relief.
Mobility works consists of slow movements through full range, to help maintain and even improve your current movement capabilities. Exercises serve to strengthen the “forgotten” muscles that become overstretched and weak with chronic poor posture, and static stretching will help to lengthen those muscles that are constantly crunched up in a shortened position.
To help with Upper Crossed Syndrome, we focus on mobilizing and stretching through the mid-back (your thoracic spine), chest, shoulders, and neck. We put our strength focus primarily on the muscles that help with “pulling” and perform at least twice as many pull exercises as pushing ones, to counteract the imbalances of our daily life.
Will this fix my posture?
Can we ever perform enough stretching and strengthening to reverse the posture we use throughout the rest of the day? Maybe not. What we can do is become more aware of our posture, start to make a dent in the amount of tension we’re carrying, prevent it from getting worse, and start to reduce or eliminate the amount of pain we feel. We can certainly improve our posture, and even if you don’t ever reach “perfect” posture, the impact on your quality of life can be huge.
Looking for some examples of the exercises discussed above? Download our free PDF, “Life of a Desk Worker”, available on our home page.
Need a bit more help? We’re always happy to chat – comment below or send us an email!