In this age of computers and advanced technology, science has found many revolutionary ways of curing and preventing different types of diseases. We have vaccines that can help prevent the flu and new technologies that help us fight cancer but where modern science and technology may help cure a pandemic in the form of disease, there is another condition of the human body that is often over looked and is affecting people world wide; that condition is a poor posture.
Most of us, who become gym rats, go to the gym for aesthetic purposes – to look better. Some of us who visit the gym frequently may have another motivating factor, such as high blood pressure, diabetes or obesity; conditions which inhibit the body’s normal function and good diet and exercise can help improve. What about your posture? Many people wouldn’t give it a second thought; some may even believe that a poor posture is actually normal, when in fact a poor posture can be just as hazardous to your heath as the flu.
A poor posture can affect the human body in two ways: structurally and physiologically. The human body is a very intricate and fascinating machine. One of the bodies’ primary functions is to maintain a constant state of homeostasis. The body will actually alter bone structure and organ placement, if necessary, to achieve this result. The body may send osteoclasts and osteoblasts, cells that break down and build up bone, to an area of repeated blunt force and flatten that area of bone to prevent breakage or further pain; if a vein is blocked, such as a varicose vein, a new vein may be formed around it so that blood can flow unobstructed; or if tissue is damaged within the body around an organ, the body may build connective tissue to anchor an organ to an adjacent structure.
It’s a bit of an irony, the human posture. When we are made in the womb, we are made in a fetal position; the head and knees are tucked into the chest and arms are folded around them. When we are born, our bodies go through a transition or an unfolding, so that we can stand upright and walk. The spinal curvature is developed at this time. In infancy, the lordotic (concave) curvature in the cervical spine (neck) is first to develop as infants build the strength to hold their own heads up. As babies learn to crawl, the lordotic curvature of the lumbar spine (low back) is developed. The “S” shape of the spine acts like a spring to absorb impact and support weight.
Our society is that of a technological society. Many of our jobs often require us to sit at a computer for extended periods of time; also nearly every home has a computer or television. Where 30 years ago, the poorest posture was seen in working adults, now the worst postures are being seen in young men and women before they’re 15; with more and more use of gaming consoles and smart phones.
The human body is purposed to be in a position with the head sitting above the shoulders; in line with the hips, beneath the feet. The shoulders should be in a relaxed position with palms facing slightly forward. The feet should be facing forward with the big toe pointed slightly outward and knees pointing in the direction of the feet. As we sit and function in a prolonged forward position, the muscles supporting the mid back and neck become weak and over stretched. The muscles in our chest (Pecs) and in the front of the neck become overworked and tight, forcing the shoulder blades to protract, or slide forward, the head of the humerus (arm bone) to rotate inward and the neck to straighten causing the head to drop forward. This is the forward head, protracted shoulders position.
Structurally, over time as the body tries to maintain balance, the spine will begin to alter its structure to support this new position. The lordotic curvature in the cervical spine (neck) will lose its curvature and straighten out causing the kyphotic curvature of the thoracic spine (mid back) which is attached to the ribcage to exaggerate. Now that the head is no longer directed above the shoulders, the hips begin to rotate backward to keep the head above the hips to support the weight. This action begins to alter the lordotic curvature in the lumbar spine (low back). This position will continue to exaggerate as weight increases in the front of the body and the mid back and neck muscles become more overstretched and weaker. As the nerve outlets in the vertebrae begin to narrow and the muscles responsible for the movement of the shoulder become unbalanced, this leaves the body open to easy orthopedic injury, pinched nerves or herniated discs in the neck, neuritis and thoracic outlet syndrome – a complication of impinged nerves rising from the neck and shoulder, often mimicking symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome.
Physiologically, what happens inside the body is a new set of complications. I will begin with a brief overview of cellular respiration and production of energy.
As we inhale and exhale oxygen with the power of our lungs, oxygen is brought in to the body and enters the bloodstream; using the power of diffusion. The blood vessels transport oxygen to special cells that convert oxygen into ATP – the chemical compound directly responsible for energy throughout the body; both cellular energy and energy required for muscle contraction. When oxygen is absent or there is a lack of oxygen, the body uses cellular waste (lactic acid) in a recycled form for the production of ATP.
Now that we are in a structurally compromised position, forward head, protracted shoulders often presenting with a tucked pelvis, the thoracic cavity (chest) and abdominal cavity (stomach) and its internal structures become compressed. The diaphragm, a muscle responsible for inhalation, is not allowed to fully expand; therefore the lungs are not allowed to fully expand, limiting the amount of air that enters the lungs, furthermore limiting the amount of oxygen that enters the bloodstream and into the cells for energy production.
As the abdominal cavity remains compressed, connective tissue connecting the ribcage to the pelvis (yes, you’ve got that!!) becomes thicker, caused by adhesion from the lack of movement. This shortens the already limited spaces in the guts, which may inhibit proper digestion and elimination. This compressed situation may contribute to various hernias and constipation.
About half way through this article you’re probably sitting a little bit taller in your chair and evaluating your own posture. You’re also probably thinking, “Ok, I have this but what do I do about it?”
There are different stages for structural compromise, from mild to severe. More active individuals may only find they have a mild forward head, protracted shoulders where more sedentary or older individuals may present with a more severe form. A combination of massage therapy and exercise will help with the process of getting back into an upright position.
Using muscle specific exercise will strengthen the muscles in the neck, shoulders and mid back allowing for strength and support for the body’s weight.
Massage is essential for correcting a poor posture as massage will break up adhesions that may be present in the abdominals, release overworked and tight muscles in the chest and other areas of the body.
Stretching these overworked and tight areas in the chest and abdomen will also help prevent the body from stooping forward.
So, next time you begin to feel that 5pm drag, ask yourself if “How am I sitting?” Take a 15 minute break to take a stretch. Open that chest up and take a deep breath!
Pamela Mabry, LMT
Massage Therapy Program Director - Houston NW Campus
The College of Health Care Professions (Texas License # MS0127)