Chronic Pain? Your Posture Could Be the Culprit

With so much of your day focused on mobile devices, staring at computer screens, driving, sitting, and possibly favoring one side over the other, your posture may be looking less than ideal. Poor posture can contribute to muscle pain, headaches, fatigue and stress. Miledones Eliades, MD, of the NorthShore Neurological Institute says most of his patients have mild “bad posture habits” including slumping of the back, protraction (forward position) of the head and neck and rounding of the shoulders.

“The importance of posture is not appreciated until symptoms develop,” Miledones says.

Your posture, or how you carry yourself, refers (ideally) to a neutral spine, which maintains the three natural curves of your spine-cervical, thoracic and lumbar. Good posture allows your body to function optimally and is important whether you are sitting, standing, walking, running, and even while you sleep. Posture can also impact how you feel about yourself, as demonstrated in an Ohio State University study that linked good posture with confidence.

Posture and Health

Donna Parise Byrne, a physical therapist certified by the Postural Restoration Institute, stresses that good posture is critical to:

  • Optimize respiration, circulation and digestion
  • Allow for normal daily movement
  • Keep bones and joints in good alignment
  • Reduce wear and tear on joint surfaces
  • Decrease stress on ligaments
  • Prevent muscle strain and overuse injuries
  • Minimize muscle energy and prevent fatigue
  • Maintain a healthy position of your spine
  • Enhance your physical appearance

Posture and Alignment

Good posture doesn’t just mean standing up tall. In her practice, Parise Byrne sees many clients who are naturally stronger on their right sides, which can lead to asymmetry throughout the body. She points out that the body is inherently asymmetrical, with larger organs on the right. Over time, this asymmetry can lead to pain, dysfunction and injury from the neck all the way down to the feet. For people who do repetitive activities like walking, running, cycling, or even sitting, muscle imbalances can become severe.

To check for asymmetry, Parise Byrne suggests you observe your body in front of a mirror:

  • Is one shoulder dropped forward more than the other?
  • Is one ankle rolled in more than the other?
  • Is one pelvic (hip) bone higher than the other?
  • Is your belly button pointed forward or to one side?
  • Is your rib cage flared out on one side?
  • Can you balance on one foot more easily than the other?

Your physician, physical therapist or chiropractor can perform simple tests to check your alignment and suggest specific exercises to get you back into alignment and improve your posture. For simple postural habit problems, Eliades suggests seeing a skilled practitioner for physical therapy to strengthen the correct postural muscles and stretch tight muscles that interfere with proper posture.

“Many patients have trouble focusing on the postural muscles and substitute other muscles,” Eliades says. “The process of postural reeducation is slow and requires commitment to do the exercises at home. Fortunately, most patients can get significant relief of symptoms without having to establish a ‘perfect posture.’”

Posture and Your Lifestyle

Work to improve your posture in your everyday living. The following are all important contributors to good posture:

  • Work to reach and maintain your ideal body weight
  • Engage in a regular aerobic exercise program
  • Develop a core strengthening and stretching program for postural muscles
  • Invest in a great mattress and practice good body position as you sleep
  • Sit in a supportive chair and with a neutral spine (see photos #1 and #2)
  • Reduce sitting time, and get up every 30 minutes
  • Avoid standing in one position for long periods of time and be aware of how you stand (see photos #3 and #4)
  • Lift and reach for objects properly using your legs rather than your back
  • Be aware of muscle imbalances, from left to right, and work to correct them
  • Have your eyes checked regularly to ensure good balance
  • Wear supportive shoes
Photo #1: Poor seated posture; Photo #2: Neutral spine in sitting: hips and knees at 90 degree angles, heels under knees, rock back off sit bones (slump) rock forward of sit bones (arch low back) then settle halfway in between, abs engaged, press left heel down, shift right knee forward, feel weight on left sit bone and left inner thigh engaged.
Photo #3: Poor standing posture; Photo #4: Neutral spine in standing: weight centered on left heel, belly button to left, spine in neutral, ribs dropped down rather than flared. Model is Elizabeth Hodges of Pilates Central.

Exercises for Better Posture

Kerry Corcoran of The Dailey Method says many students come to class showing the effects of years spent rounding their shoulders or hunching over desks. Others have an exaggerated sway back posture from standing incorrectly for most of their lives.

“The Dailey Method helps you to stretch and strengthen the muscles on all sides of your body to bring your bones into their optimal alignment,” Corcoran says. “The result is a long, strong spine and posture that is confident, beautiful and feels fantastic.”

Corcoran recommends practicing “flat back” posture, which helps to open up your shoulders and chest, lengthen your spine and tap into your deepest core muscles to support the position. The spinal extension (photo #5) can also improve posture.

Photo #5. Courtesy of The Dailey Method.

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