You’ve been sitting at your desk for hours on end. You get up and think ‘wow, is my neck sore!’ Wonder why? Let’s take a look at the more common thing that happens over time from extended sitting.
Initially you may start pretty upright in your chair. The day is fresh and you are ready to go. As the day progresses you start to slump a bit. The lower back starts to round, causing your abdominal and chest areas to come forward and shorten. Naturally your head follows and starts to move forward and closer to the computer screen. Your eyes need to see what you are reading so you slightly tilt your head up. All these moves are unconscious yet by the time you get out of your chair your entire body positioning has been compromised. After months or years of this poor posture, the muscles become adapted to this new position.
To begin, a natural position for the head is to be directly above the shoulder joint. When it is sitting in this position, it requires the least amount of energy for your head to rest comfortably. However as that head starts to move forward of that ideal posture, your muscles have to take over in holding the head up against gravity. It may not sound like a big deal but according to Dr. Renee Calliet for every inch your head is forward of normal alignment it adds 10 pounds of pressure on the neck muscles. Over time as the head migrates further forward it can result in 30 pounds of additional pressure on the muscles of the neck! Talk about a heavy load! Our head already weighs between 10-12 pounds on average and now we are throwing an additional 30 pounds or more onto it! No light matter.
So who’s doing the work? It is the neck muscles that run directly down the spine that end up taking the load. Not only do they have to work hard to hold up that head, they are spending a great deal of unnecessary energy to do so. That energy results in an output of waste products including lactic acid. At the same time the muscles are tight from contracting, which results in decrease of blood flow causing those waste products to accumulate and irritate the nerve endings. Pain! Over time the spine will start to adapt to the position and finally recruits the body to lay down some extra connective tissue to assist. Have you seen people with that lump on the back of their neck at about shoulder height? It is called a dowager’s hump and is primarily a result of this head forward posture.
This is only part of the story. Remember I mentioned that you tend to tilt your head up to see the screen? Our body naturally realigns itself to bring the eyes to the horizon by tilting that head slightly up at the base of the scull. There are muscles there called the suboccipital muscles that hold your head in that position. When they are shortened for a long period of time they can develop hyperirritable nodules that can actually cause headaches – like a tight band around your head at the eye level. Ever had one of those headaches?
At the same time there are muscles in the front of the neck that end up short. One in particular – the sternocleidomastoid (SCM for short) can also cause
temporal headaches and jaw pain. Another group called the scalene muscles can press on the nerves that innervate the arm, causing numbness and tingling in the arm and/or hand. It is a bit more complicated than this but you get the picture.
I could go on about the resulting effects of the chest muscles but let’s wait for another time. For now, we should look at things that you can do to get yourself out of this positioning. Here are a few tips:
- Make sure your chair has correct back support. You need to have a slight curve in your low back or you are going to round that low back which will result in rounding your chest, bringing your head forward and starting a barrage of other problems over time.
- Make sure your keyboard is in a position in front of you where your arms can relax by your sides with the elbows bent to 90 degrees. If your keyboard is too high, you will elevate the shoulders. If it is too low, you will be more likely to round that upper back, cave in your chest and end up with your head forward.
- If you work on a laptop, you might want to consider a monitor so you can look directly ahead rather than down onto the laptop screen.
- Get up and move regularly! The longer we sit, the more our posture starts to get compromised. Even if it is just a quick walk around your desk, when you sit back down you will hopefully be sitting more erect.
- Stretch out the neck muscles in the front, sides and back of the neck.
- Do some door stretches to stretch out the pectoralis muscles.
- Don’t know the ideal positioning for these stretches? Check out my eBook. It will give you full details for stretching these muscles and much more.
- Think of lifting up the top of your head towards the ceiling to elongate the neck and slightly tuck your chin in towards your neck.
- Set a timer every hour or two to recheck your sitting position and realign yourself accordingly.
If you are not sure if you have your head forward of ideal alignment, ask someone to take a picture of you from the side. You may be surprised!
As I am sure you know, sitting is only one of the culprits for that head ending up in a forward position. Many other factors can play a role including imbalanced musculature in the upper body and hips. If you have chronic neck pain or regular headaches you may want to check with a physical therapist or neuromuscular therapist to assist in assessing your situation. You may also want to look into forms of exercise that will help you rebalance your body such as yoga, Pilates or Essentrics. Not only will these help in getting the blood flowing but over time will assist you in getting your body properly aligned.
These are just a few tips to get your started.
I hope you found this helpful!
To your health,