Sitting slouched at a computer can not only can make you look 10 years older, but also create tight and painful neck muscles. Slouching can be the cause of sore trigger points, tension headaches, numbness/tingling in the arms, and early osteoarthritis. But there are steps everyone can take to relax their neck muscles and reduce neck pain. It’s all about aligning the neck bones and understanding the body’s natural reflexes.
Our muscles are designed to hold our bones together. In the neck, the muscles attach the skull to the spine. In a “perfect posture,” the weight of the skull is centered over the spine; because of this balance, there is very little work for the muscles. Now imagine a slouched posture, where the head moves forward and the weight of the skull is forcing the neck to bend. In order to prevent your neck from collapsing, your neck muscles have to work hard to keep your skull back on top of your spine. If you are in a “perfect posture,” it is almost impossible for your neck muscles to be tight. So if every day after work your neck muscles are tight, you need to look at your posture during the day.
Another reason why slouching causes neck pain is the natural phenomenon called the visual righting reflex. This reflex happens because your brain wants you to view the world with your head orientated level in space. So when you are sitting slouched at a computer, a signal is sent from your inner ear to your brain to tighten your neck muscles, arching the neck bones so your head can be upright. Most people don’t realize how contorted their necks can get! Think about what position your neck is in as you are reading this, or when you are draped over a couch watching TV. We typically don’t watch TV with our head tipped sideways, and that is because of this reflex.
I regularly take a side view picture of my patients sitting, as it’s hard to see your own posture in a mirror. Take a before and after photo to see the difference. To start, think of the whole spine as a stack of blocks—you cannot fix the top if the blocks below are crooked. While sitting, rock your pelvis forward and back to find the halfway position. Then take a deep breath, lifting your chest bone (sternum). You want your abs and diaphragm to feel like they are holding up your rib cage. This puts more work on your abs instead of your neck muscles, which is a good thing! The abs are built to take it and it will help tone your core. Then, to fix the neck, tuck your chin in slightly while moving your head backwards on top of your body. If you were sitting with your back to a wall, your head should ideally touch the wall.
For most people this position is not possible right away and will feel very awkward at first. Take a few minutes every hour to set this posture to build the habit. Set reminders on your computer and tell your friends to get after you for slouching. For those who are trying to undo a life of bad posture, this new one will feel stiff and tight, but should not be sore. Remember, if you are in the “perfect posture” and you feel the area between the neck and shoulder, the muscles should be less tense. If you need help, consult a professional who can customize the right posture cues for you.
By Lauren McGuire, MScPT, BScKIN, CAFCI