Gotcha! You don’t need a “how to” lesson on this, but maybe a refresher course is in order. The adult human head, on average, weighs 10 to 12 pounds. That’s the weight of a bowling ball. And the human spinal column is about the diameter of a broomstick. So all day, every day as you move around, you are balancing a bowling ball on a broomstick!
That means you ask your neck muscles to do a tremendous amount of work, holding your head up and moving it around. You make that job harder by assuming head-forward postures (HFP).
What is HFP
Ideally, when you look at your body from the side, there should be a straight line (a plumb line, or gravity line) from your ear through your shoulder, hip, knee and ankle. With HFP your ear is forward of this line. For every one degree forward, you effectively add 10 pounds of weight to your head. HFP is a common cause of head, neck and shoulder tension and pain.
Most of the weight of your head is in the front, and this helps pull it forward. As your head moves forward, the eyes try to stay level with the horizon (righting mechanism) so your head also tips up. Over time, muscles in the front of your neck get overstretched and weak and muscles in the back become contracted, short and tight. Research has found that muscles deep in the front of the neck are the main culprits; when these muscles are weak and overstretched, they allow the head to move even more into HFP.
Signs of HFP
An estimated 66% to 90% of the population have HFP issues. Strained muscles can go into protective spasm, bringing on the stubborn pain/spasm/pain cycle. The strength imbalance resulting from HFP stresses muscles that support your head, neck and shoulders. Arthritis, damaged discs and pinched nerves can be the result.
The degree of HFP correlates with frequency and duration of tension headaches along with increased blood pressure, issues with the eyes and ears, and psychological disorders as well.
In addition to headaches caused by tight neck muscles and pressure on nerves at the base of the skull, the low back can become involved as HFP can pull all of the spine out of alignment. Muscles in the upper back get overworked, trying to help out. The rounded upper back and shoulders associated with HFP decrease respiratory muscle strength; this affects the ability to breathe by reducing lung capacity up to 30%.
Causes of HFP
Time spent working or recreating with anything that’s in front of you can contribute to HFP development: household tasks like dishwashing and vacuuming; long hours driving (especially with your head more than 2 or 3 inches away from the headrest); playing a musical instrument; computer or laptop work; reading in bed; carrying a heavy purse or backpack over one shoulder.
People on average spend 2 to 4 hours a day with their heads down using smart devices. Add that up and over the course of a year you have 700 to 1400 hours of poor posture. Is it any wonder “text neck” is a big problem?
These are just some examples. Can you find more in your own life?
Any prior injury involving the neck, like strain or sprain or whiplash, that weakened neck muscles makes HFP even more likely.
What to do for HFP
In theory, standing and sitting up straight avoids musculoskeletal problems caused by bad posture. But we are creatures of habit, and much of our furniture (home and office) was never designed with modern lifestyles in mind. Being aware of correct neck posture is the first thing to do to help correct the problem. It’s very easy to get involved in doing something and forget to move and stretch every so often.
- Maintain good posture while sitting and standing
- Balance the weight of a backpack by carrying it squarely over both shoulders
- Carry a heavy purse or duffel bag slung diagonally across your body
- Make sure you have good lower back support if you are sitting or lying for long periods of time; slouching can lead to HFP
- At your computer, place the monitor so the top third is level with your eyes, with the screen 18 to 24 inches away (the larger the screen, the further away it should be)
- Hold your iPad/iPhone/etc in front of you at eye level (but this one’s going to be hard to do for any length of time – you don’t want to exchange one problem for another one!)
- Don’t use more than one bed pillow (we spend almost a third of our lives sleeping, so good alignment is important here)
If you have no underlying neck issues, you can try the Chin Tuck exercise: Sit or stand up straight; use your neck muscles to gently pull your head back so your ears are over your shoulders (pretend someone is pushing your nose toward the back of your head) – remember to keep your eyes level so your head doesn’t move up or down; hold for 5 seconds; return to the starting position. As with any exercise, if it causes discomfort, stop!
A healthcare provider may be able to suggest other exercises.
Guess Mom was right when she told you to “sit up straight”!
DISCLAIMER: The information presented here is intended as an educational resource. It is not a substitute for medical advice. Before beginning any exercise program or if you have any concerns about your condition, consult the appropriate healthcare provider.
photo: via morgueFile