We look down at our phones to check messages, slouch on the couch to stream the next best show, and hunch over at our desks day in and day out responding to emails. We spend a lot of our days with poor posture.
Just exactly how much?
In today’s society, the average person spends approximately 8 hours per day in front of a screen. That is just personal screen time! So add that to screen time spent actually working and a significant amount of our day takes place in front of a screen.
And we’re probably not consciously activating our core muscles and keeping our shoulders back during this time. Yet, we wonder why our neck, shoulders, and low back hurts?
It all comes down to poor posture. And because we spend so much of our day in these poor postural positions, our bodies have adapted to where we are basically stuck living in these positions...living in pain. But there is something you can do about it.
A postural assessment takes a detailed look at how various parts of your body fit or don’t fit together. The goal of a postural assessment is to make sure that both sides of the body are in balance. Examining someone’s posture can help us to discover the cause or reason behind pain and injury.
Now, if you are curious and want to dive deeper in postural analysis, there is a great scientific article that examines different postural assessment methods in sports persons here. But for our purposes we’re going to focus specifically on excessive kyphosis and lordosis.
Kyphosis and Lordosis in the Vertebrae
When examining the human vertebrae, we see there is a natural curvature to the spine. However, when we spend over 8 hours per day with poor posture we may develop a kyphotic-lordotic posture.
Kyphosis = Abnormal rounding of the upper back (thoracic vertebrae)
Lordosis = Excessive inward curve of the spine (cervical and lumbar vertebrae)
To help paint the poor postural picture, our back is rounded which forces our head forward causing us to extend our neck at the cervical spine. This way we’re not looking at the floor. Now, with the top half of our body leaning forward, our lumbar spine compensates and it looks like we are almost sticking our butt out (to say it candidly).
Now this “poor posture” can actually become our new norm. Meaning, there’s a principle in the field of exercise science called the SAID principle. The SAID principle stands for Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands.
Now this is generally associated with exercise, as when we exercise, our body adapts to the demand or stress of exercise. However, the same rings true for any demand placed on our body, even a postural demand. If we spend enough time hunched over and over-extending our low backs (because we’re not actively engaging our core), our body will adapt to that new postural demand we are placing on it.
These adaptations occur at our muscle fibers. More specifically, the sarcomeres. Sarcomeres are the basic contractile element of skeletal muscle. With poor posture, certain muscles are lengthened while others are shortened. Sarcomeres are thus added or lost in series.
What does this look like in regards to which muscles are being lengthened or shortened resulting in a kyphotic-lordotic posture?
When someone has an excessive lordotic curve in the low back, we see that the abdominals are lengthened while the hip flexors and back erector muscles are shortened. When someone has an excessive kyphotic curve in the mid-back we see that the anterior pectoralis muscles are shortened while the mid-back muscles, trapezius and rhomboids, may be lengthened.
These muscular adaptations cause our joints to be misaligned (ie. poor posture). This has a negative impact on how we move which may result in pain and/or injury.
Joint Movement Patterns: Pain and Injury
Let’s start from the top and work our way down the body. Though, we’re going to see a common theme in that as the muscle has become shortened, the range of motion the joints becomes more limited.
We previously mentioned that kyphosis may force our cervical vertebrae to have an excessive lordotic curve which prevents us from staring down at the ground. This lordotic curve is due to the upper trapezius and other neck extensor muscles shortening to keep the head up.
Give this a try, experience it first hand...stick your head out forward as far as possible. Like when you “bob” your head forward and backward to music, but keep it forward. Now try to look up to the ceiling. Pretty difficult, right? Imagine life with decreased range of motion at your neck, not being able to look up, or even over your shoulder.
Now this can also result in upper neck pain or even headaches. But how?
For all the Jerry Maguire fans out there, we know that the human head weighs about 8 pounds. That’s pretty heavy! Have you ever tried to hold something that weighs 8 pounds away from your body with a fully extended arm? Ok, maybe you have, but your shoulder probably got tired or it began to hurt. The same thing is happening with your neck and it’s all physics.
Now, in physics, when an object gets further away from the axis of rotation, the more torque that must be applied to move or stabilize the object. The same goes for our neck and head. As our head begins to slouch forward from all of the looking down (because no one looks up at their phone), it moves further away it’s axis point and now the neck extensor muscles must contract harder and harder to keep the head up. So, these muscles are constantly firing all day and pulling on the base of our skull which is where we get the headaches from.
Let’s work our way down to the shoulders. The excessive kyphotic curve in the thoracic vertebrae results in our anterior chest muscles shortening and mid-back muscles lengthening. This results in our scapula (shoulder blades) being protracted and humerus (upper arm bone) being internally rotated. Basically, it’s a slouched or hunched over position.
This slouched over posture results in a decreased range of motion at the shoulder joint. In order for our hand to go over our head, the scapula must move with the glenohumeral (shoulder) joint. However, bad posture resulting in protracted shoulder blades and internally rotated shoulders leads to mobility issues at the shoulder joint.
Try this for example, completely roll your shoulders forward and hunch over. Now try to lift your hand over your head. Tough, right? Your range of motion was limited at your shoulder so you can now say bye bye to overhead squats and giving epic high fives to people.
Due to this abnormal posture, our shoulder joint is now misaligned which may cause shoulder pain or injury. This hunched over posture decreases the joint space in the anterior (front) aspect of the shoulder. Repetitive movement with this misaligned joint may result in structural damage to the joint. Also, the joint space the biceps tendon runs through is smaller and the tendon may become impinged resulting in biceps tendinits.
Lastly, let’s examine the low back. When we do not actively engage our core and we look like we’re kind of “sticking our butt out” we see that now not only is there compression on the lumbar vertebrae but hip impingement issues may arise as the pelvis is anteriorly rotated. This anterior pelvic rotation is resultant of the shortening and hyperactivity of the back erector muscles and hip flexors as well as the lengthening and underactivity of the abdominals. This can make it very hard now to “lean backwards” as the same thing is happening here at the lumbar vertebrae as the cervical vertebrae.
It’s estimated that 75-85% of us will experience back pain at some point in our lives. Those with chronic low back pain demonstrate a less efficient muscle control control system and inability to provide necessary spinal stability for everyday movements. However, our body adapts to demands placed on it. So, these postural adaptation issues that we have developed can be overcome.
Prevent Pain and Increase Strength
Utilizing the PowerDot Smart Technology, not only can you strengthen your underactive muscles to improve posture but you can also massage and relax the overactive muscles as well. We have the 10 best preset programs already designed and waiting for you. And it’s all in the palm of your hands.
Let’s examine the practical application of improving low back pain, since most of us will have it at some point in our lives. You would want to place the electrodes on your abdomens to retrain your abdominal muscles to be more active. Neuromuscular electrical stimulation (NMES) has been shown to improve both strength and endurance of abdominal muscles which are both necessary to maintain proper posture. This activation of the abdominals will result in a decrease of the anterior pelvic rotation which will help to decrease low back pain and improve function.
However, back pain never went away overnight. Using NMES, you may actually be able to decrease your pain close to 20%! Just place the electrodes on your low back, select a massage or recovery setting, and this will help decrease any pain until your abdominals are firing and your posture is fixed.
The key to remember is that the body will always adapt to the demand placed on it.