We often see people being referred to physical therapy for complaints of cervical spine or shoulder pain with no mechanism of injury. When we delve deeper into their history, it is common that the person sits at a desk most of the day or has a long commute to work. What we tend to find is that posture plays a huge role in these types of cases.
Have you heard the phrase “Sitting is the new smoking”? This is a phrase health care professionals are using as a way to make people realize how harmful prolonged sitting can be for your body and posture. A good posture would be one where a person sits erect with their head in line with their spine, feet on the floor, and shoulders relaxed. What we frequently see instead is a forward head posture with rounded shoulders and a rounded lower back. This type of posture did not occur overnight and is often a result of maintaining a seated position for many hours at a time over a span of many years. This has the potential to cause many problems because it places additional stresses on our joints and surrounding soft tissues. Over time this tends to create muscle imbalances, which ultimately causes tightness through some parts of the body and weakness through others.
Most commonly, we see that the pectoral muscles get short and tight and the peri-scapular muscles becoming long and weak. This forces a rounded position through the shoulders and causes the head to move forward, creating a tightness through the upper neck muscles and lengthening through the cervical stabilizers. Joints then adapt to these muscular changes, which often creates hypomobility through the thoracic spine and over time, exaggerating its natural curve or “kyphosis”, which in turn becomes unnatural. There are two types of major muscle groups in the body, prime movers and stabilizers. Prime movers are typically the larger muscles and act to move a joint through the majority of its available motion. Examples of prime movers would be your quadriceps, hamstrings, biceps, and triceps. Stabilizers are the smaller muscles that surround a joint and are responsible for smaller contractions over a prolonged period of time. Examples of stabilizers are your transversus abdominus, multifidi, and periscapular muscles. If these muscles become weak, your body’s support system is adversely affected. Structural parts of the body are like a suspension bridge, if the lateral supports are not strong and tight, the bridge will fall down. If the support system isn’t strong, the muscles become weak and the joints adapt to these imbalances over time. It can be helpful to see a physical therapist to address these issues before they become worse, but it is also important to make some changes to your work station to promote good use of your stabilizer muscles. Ask your HR department about ergonomic equipment options and if you qualify for them. If you are someone who works from home, ask your PT about how to best change your work setup. Simple modifications, such as adding a lumbar support or bringing your chair closer to your keyboard, can be extremely helpful in improving posture. Standing desks can also be great options for those people who have the resources to obtain one.
Not only does prolonged sitting wreak havoc on your musculoskeletal system, but it is also bad for your overall health. Researchers have found that each hour of sitting will decrease your life span by 22 min. As Americans, we are sitting more and more between work, long commutes, and watching tv. Sedentary lifestyles have been found to put people at higher risk for diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers. My biggest suggestion is to stay active. Get off your couch and try walking at least 30 min per day in order to improve cardiovascular health. If you have to sit, try to change position every 30 min. In conclusion, we as humans, are not meant to sit all day. In ancient times, people were upright for the majority of the day, walking and running, to hunt and catch their food. We have evolved since the caveman era, although not enough to allow our bodies to sit for extended periods of time. Check your posture. Avoid sitting for long periods of time. And lastly, get up and move.
Harrison R. The importance of your 2 different types of muscles: a functional approach. 2010:https://austinpersonaltrainer.wordpress.com/2010/02/17/the-importance-of-your-2-different-types-of-muscles-a-functional-approach/. Tucker J. Sitting is the new smoking. Dynamic Chiropractic. 2013: (31): 14. The Huffington Post. Sitting is the new smoking, ways a sedentary lifestyle is killing you. 2014: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/the-active-times/sitting-is-the-new-smokin_b_5890006.html