How many times do you need to be reminded to sit up straight? Either by an outside source, or by reminding yourself? If you are like most people, I am going to guess that these reminders are fairly frequent. With the rise in use of electronic devices such as smartphones and tablets, the number of people with constant poor posture is on the rise. Along with the rise in individuals with poor posture, we chiropractors are seeing an increase in people who complain of neck pain, and headaches. While the onset of pain and headaches is the most common, and noticeable symptom of poor posture; it is by no means the only problem individuals with poor posture can have.
The most obvious symptoms are those that can be measured. Spinal pain and dysfunction is the most common one. Human spines are designed to have three curvatures. We have a cervical lordosis, a thoracic kyphosis, and a lumbar lordosis. That is what accounts of the back to front curves of the spine. We are born with the thoracic kyphosis due to the amount of time we spend in the fetal position in utero. The cervical lordosis develops when we first hold our heads up as babies, and the lumbar lordosis develops when we begin to walk. These curvatures are important because it helps with weight distribution in the spine. This allows the body to bear the load, without injury. When we have poor posture, either by constantly having forward head carriage, or by slumping our shoulders we change the biomechanics of our spine. Forward head carriage causes your cervical curve to decrease, and slumping of the shoulders causes the thoracic curve to increase. These changes to curvatures result in changes to the muscle tone of the postural muscles. It causes shortening of muscles that are supposed to be lengthened, like your pec muscles, and it causes stretch weakening of postural muscles like your rhomboids, and your spinal erectors. This is what causes the hunchback appearance. Without the strength of your thoracic erectors to keep you upright, the shortened muscles on the front of the body take over.
So what else can this hunchback posture do? Another effect that it can have is a reduction in lung capacity. Your thoracic cage biomechanics are affected by poor posture. This can lead to problems with chest expansion. The muscles in between the ribs that contract and relax with the help of your diaphragm when drawing air into the lungs, poor posture causes restrictions and cramping to those muscles. This reduces the amount of expansion that your chest can do. The lower the rate of expansion, the lower the amount of air we can take it. Don’t believe me? Try it. Sit in a slumped posture, and try to breathe in as deeply as you can. Now do the same thing, but in a nice upright posture. Notice a difference? Studies have been looking at the affect of posture on the vital capacity of the lungs. The ability, or lack thereof to oxygenate your body has major implications on the rest of your health. You might feel far more lethargic than you used to due to the decrease in oxygen. You may also develop other health problems as a result.
The side effect of poor posture that I find the most intriguing is one that many people wouldn’t think of. I’m sure a lot of people don’t even associate the two. Overall mood, and stress level. There have been a couple studies recently that look at the effect of posture on blood pressure, heart rate, mood, self-esteem, and stress level. One such study out of New Zealand looked at 74 people. Researchers measured heart rate, blood pressure, and then made the participants perform tasks that were designed to measure their mood, self-esteem, and stress levels. Those members of the cohort who were told to sit upright reported feeling more enthusiastic, excited, and strong. Those in the slumped cohort reported feelings such as fear, hostility, sluggishness, and dull. Another research study from Brazil looked at the effect of forward head posture on body image. The cohorts were divided into 34 participants who were diagnosed with depression, and 37 that were otherwise healthy. Over 10 weeks their posture was assessed. The researchers noticed that during periods of depression there were noticeable posture changes including forward head posture. These same subjects also noted that they had mild dissatisfaction with their body image during their depressive episodes. Many studies are noticing that poor posture also results in increases in acute stress, which could potentially result in chronic stress. This notion of posture affecting self-esteem is very similar to the idea of using power poses prior to big events such as a job interview, athletic event, or presentation. The power pose helps to empower before a big event, which can decrease the stress level, and dispel negative feelings about the event.
Now, we obviously have heard of the physical symptoms that are associated with poor posture. How many of you are surprised to hear of the psychological symptoms?
As a chiropractor I always make sure that I do a postural evaluation on all of my new patients, because most of the time they require some form of postural correction exercises along with the adjustment. The amount of patients who have some degree of forward head carriage is astonishing. The adjustment also helps to restore normal neuro-biomechanics to the spine, which can go a long way to rebalancing the muscles and helping to correct posture.
I know pretty much every one of us is guilty of having poor posture at some point every day, I am also a guilty party despite my best attempts to maintain perfect posture. So maybe, we can all try a little harder to sit up straight. If you feel the need to use your smartphone, make sure to try and hold it at eye level. You may find that you aren’t able to use it for as long as you want because your arm muscles will get tired, but your neck will thank you. When sitting in your chair at work, give yourself that little cue, shoulders back and down, chin tucked in slightly. It might not only help fix your posture, it might just change your outlook.