How’s your posture right now?
Pause and take notice of what your body is currently doing right now. Are you standing or sitting? If seated, are your feet flat on the floor or are both sit bones evenly planted in your chair? Is your chest open, or are your shoulders rounded forward and are you slumped forward? Is your neck in a straight line from your spine, or is your chin poking forward?
In my years as a physiotherapist, I’ve seen firsthand the effects that good and poor posture can have on the human body. And while most people understand that good posture is important, not everyone realizes why it’s so vital, or how to put it into practice.
Poor posture is associated with many physical health challenges, from muscle tension and limited range of motion, to arm numbness and nerve irritation. But by far, one of the most common challenges I encounter in my clients is postural-related neck pain.
How Does Your Posture Affect Neck Pain?
By design, our body is intended to rest in alignment. The spine, acting as the centre column for the entire body, should be as vertical as possible, with the spinal curves helping with shock absorption. Your shoulders should be perpendicular to your spine, forming a lowercase ‘T’ shape with your chest, neck, and shoulders. In this position, the bulk of your body’s weight is supported by the bones in your body, rather than forcing the muscles to work hard to support you against gravity.
With that said, maintaining perfect posture all the time is much easier said than done. It’s normal for our posture to slip, especially as time goes on while you’re working at a desk or standing on the job. Neck pain commonly occurs when your head rests in front of the shoulders, leaning forward and over the chest, typically with the chin poking forward as well so we can see. This puts excess tension on the muscles in your shoulders, upper back, and of course, the back of your skull (suboccipital muscles), since your muscles are working hard to keep the head attached and to look up at your phone, computer, or even the scenery around you.
One day of poor posture might leave you feeling a little stiff or sore afterward, but it’s with consistently poor posture that you’ll start to experience certain health challenges. These can include:
- Pain and limited range—The neck vertebrae are collectively known as the cervical spine. The further forward your head in your average posture, the more weight is placed on the cervical spine—all in addition to the 10-12 pounds that your head weighs as is. This can lead to muscular tension, ongoing pain, and lack of mobility in your neck.
- Muscle overload—Since your muscles must hold the bulk of your head’s weight when your posture is askew, it can soon lead to an overload of the tissue’s capabilities. This can lead to severe pain or even muscle spasms if the problem continues for longer periods.
- Nerve irritation—As you may know, your spine does more than support the vertical weight of your body. It also acts as a protective casing for the essential nerves that run through its centre and exit at every level between the vertebrae. However, when your head alignment is too far forward, the space where the nerves exit gets smaller. This can cause the nerves within the spine to become stretched, or compressed, which can lead to severe pain, numbness and/or potentially weakness.
- Further posture challenges—One of the biggest issues with poor head posture is its vicious cycle. The longer you operate with your body out of alignment, the more difficult it can be to adjust to a healthier position, causing more issues, which cause worse posture, and so on. Breaking the cycle is essential to ensuring your health overall.
How to Adjust Your Posture to Reduce Neck Pain
Clearly, there’s a lot more to neck posture than a little stiffness. It might seem like a small or insignificant thing now, but you’d likely think differently if you had experienced the discomfort that so many have over the years.
So how do you go about adjusting your posture to keep your body balanced and aligned, ensuring you can live a life free from neck pain, nerve issues, rounded shoulders, and all the other troubles they bring along with them?
Head posture is considered ‘good’ when the ears are squarely above the shoulders, and the chest is open, with the shoulders centered and stacking over a vertical ribcage and pelvis. In order for this posture to have any positive effects on your body, however, you need to make it a habit. A day or two of great posture won’t do anything if you’ve spent years with your head slouched forward.
Here are a few tips to optimize your habits and environment to improve your posture and start enjoying the benefits of a body in alignment:
- Adjust ergonomics. This is an especially important point for those who work while seated, such as in office jobs. Your chair and desk directly control the way you sit, and your current setup may actually be prolonging the effects of poor posture. Investing in ergonomic office equipment can have a near-immediate effect on posture.
- Consider your eye line. When you use your phone, you likely hold it below you and look down at it. The same might be true for your tablet, laptop screen, or handheld gaming device. This leads to poor forward head posture and, often, neck pain over time. Prevent this by finding ways to position devices closer to eye level, allowing you to watch with your neck in a better alignment.
- Check in with your posture regularly. Try to get in the habit of stopping every 45 mins to an hour or so to see what your posture is like. If your head is forward, your shoulders are rounded forward, or your spine isn’t in a vertical line, adjust your body and realign. If you can keep up with this habit for a couple of weeks, good posture will begin to be second nature.
- Keep active. The stronger you are, the easier good posture will be. Sitting and standing with an ideal posture can feel physically demanding at first since your body is used to existing in a more relaxed physical state. However, if you pair posture efforts with exercise, you’ll find it easier to maintain body alignment.
Expert Care for Posture, Neck Pain, and More
We might have rolled our eyes at being told to sit up straight in the past, but as it turns out, those voices had the right idea. Like any worthwhile, healthy habit, good posture takes time and effort to master. But in the end, your body and mind will thank you for it.
If you’re searching for expert, customized support with your posture, including exercises to build healthy habits and suggestions on improving ergonomics and other factors, I’m here to help. As a highly trained physiotherapist with more than two decades worth of experience, I can help adapt the idea of ‘perfect’ posture to your life in a way that makes sense for you and motivates you to meet your health goals.