Mary Joy, DO is one of Tanana Valley Clinic’s Osteopathic Manipulative Medicine physicians, with professional interests in neuromusculoskeletal Medicine, including manipulative treatment for headaches and back pain. She treats all sorts of pain complaints, both acute and chronic, in all age groups. Dr. Joy is especially interested in helping athletes quickly return to play, and enjoys treating back pain and headaches during pregnancy and the postpartum period. She also works with newborns for a variety of complaints. In her spare time, Dr. Joy enjoys watching all sports, doing jigsaw puzzles, and spending time outdoors.
Poor Posture Impacts the Whole Body
Poor posture can definitely cause pain anywhere in the back and neck and can have long term effects. Having poor posture puts excessive strain on the spine, the intervertebral discs, and the muscles of the back and can make someone more likely to have degenerative changes in the spine, herniated discs, and muscle or soft tissue strains.
Poor posture can also lead to headaches. Many people these days tend to have their chin pointed slightly upward (especially while working on a computer and while driving), which tightens the muscles near the base of the skull where it connects to the neck. This can cause tension headaches with pain at the back of the head and sometimes radiate all the way around to the front. These tight muscles can also irritate the occipital nerves that pierce through these muscles, causing a particular type of headache called occipital neuralgia.
Poor posture can lead to all sorts of shoulder problems. One common postural problem is the people tend to carry their heads in front of their bodies rather than lined up squarely over their spines. This puts too much strain on the muscles across the tops of the shoulders in the neck that hold the head up. Imaging holding a bowling ball in your hand with your arm outstretched. It gets heavy pretty quickly and your shoulder starts to hurt and fatigues. Now hold the bowling ball with your hand lined up over your shoulder. It’s much easier to do. Similarly, if someone’s head is out in front of his body, the shoulders and neck will start hurting and the muscles get tired. If it is lined up over the spine, it is much easier.
Shoulder problems can also come from a hunched upper back. When the back is hunched, the shoulders tend to roll forward. This puts the shoulder joint at a mechanical disadvantage, limiting the amount of motion available and putting extra strain on the rotator cuff muscles, which can lead to overuse injuries.
These are just some examples of ways poor posture can be detrimental.
Poor Posture is Not Just For Your Grandparents
Bad posture is NOT just an age-related ailment. If you start with poor posture, it will likely get worse as you age and over time. Sitting with a hunched back, for example, can actually change the shape of the spine and make it permanently hunched. Furthermore, long term effects of poor posture habits include increased risk of degenerative changes in the spine, herniated discs, pinched nerves, back and neck pain, and overuse injuries of the shoulders, including rotator cuff tears.
If you practice and maintain good posture habits, however, you will likely be able to keep it up even as you get older.
Three Good Habits
- Good posture starts in the lower back. Roll your pelvis forward. Whether you are standing or sitting, your pelvis (hip bones) should be slightly tipped forward, just enough to stick your butt out a little, but not enough to cause a sway back or an arch in the small of your back. When standing, think about pulling the pubic bone down toward the floor. When sitting, it can be helpful to have your feet back a little so that your knees are lower than your hips.
- Lift your sternum up and out (toward the ceiling across the room). This helps with making your spine taller and expanding your rib cage).
- Tuck your chin back and down (double chin). This helps with stretching the back of the neck, especially those muscles that connect to the skull.
If you practice these 3 tips well, the rest of your body has a much easier time getting into proper posture, and mostly without you having to even think about it.
Many people will find that when you first start working on having better posture, it feels weird and may be tiring. This is temporary if you stick with it. Your back just is not used to it, and has the muscle-memory of your prior habits. The muscles that were made to support our posture against gravity are actually really big muscles, and when you re-train them and line up your body so that they are actually doing their jobs, your body will feel much better.
You might also need to start by stretching some muscles that have gotten too used to being “short” because of your posture. Typically these are the hamstrings, hip flexors (psoas major and rectus femoris), and pectoralis muscles. I recommend Youtube as a great resource for looking up stretches for particular muscles.
I book that I have found, personally, to be helpful is called 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back by Esther Gokhale, L.Ac.. This book provides stretches and exercises that help with posture. Please note, if your back pain is not caused by poor posture, following the exercises in this book won’t fix it.
When Should I See My Doctor?
You should see a professional if you have pain that is severe or doesn’t go away, or if you feel you have difficulty getting your body to have good posture even when you try.