Poor alignment can lead to more than slumped shoulders and a hunched back.

By Rebecca Norris
November 13, 2020
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Credit: Getty / AndreyPopov

Whether you're working long hours at an unofficial workstation (in a not-so-ergonomic chair), spending too much time on the couch, or hunching over your garden beds for hours at a time, you may be dealing with a decline in posture. It's an unfortunately common symptom of our new normal—so common, in fact, that we started to wonder if this postural decline can impact other areas of our health, beyond a curved spine and slumped shoulders. Ahead, a few experts share their thoughts on the bigger picture.

Posture and Your Health

Poor posture does go beyond slouched shoulders, says board licensed physical therapist and owner of Exchange Physical Therapy Group, Jaclyn Fulop, who notes that it can also increase tension in muscles, which can lead to injury or even joint damage. It can also impair your lung function, lead to poor circulation, and increase the likelihood of stress incontinence by putting more pressure on the bladder, ultimately affecting the pelvic floor. But are there ways to prevent this from happening? "I always tell my patients that they should adjust their position every 20 minutes," Fulop says. She recommends this time period because trigger points or knots (which are taut bands in the muscle that become tender to the touch) can take 20 minutes to form if the body remains in a static position. "So, get up and stretch or take a walk," she emphasizes.

Pain Game

Continuously sitting or standing in poor alignment—this includes leaning your head forward to look at your computer or phone—can lead to muscle imbalances and ultimately pain; under this stress, the body tries to adapt and find ways to hold up the head and remain upright. "Some muscles become elongated and weakened, whereas other muscles become shorter and tighter," Fulop explains. "Over time, this will cause a decrease in the cervical spine curvature, resulting in neck pain which can include degeneration, bulging, or herniated discs, pinched nerves, and [perpetual] poor posture." Tight, uncomfortable hip flexors, hamstrings, and gluteal muscles, along with a flatter lumbar curvature, can also result, leading to persistent lower back pain. Thankfully, proper stretching can improve posture, align the shoulders, and restore the curvature in the spine—all while preventing musculoskeletal imbalances and aches and pains, confirms Fulop.

Postural Awareness

Fighting bad posture—and the slew of health ailments that come with it—all comes down to awareness and understanding the biggest threats to our overall alignment. Unsurprisingly, these are our devices, which require us to tip our heads forward. Since this often ends up being a full-body problem, Fulop says that it is important to be keenly attuned to our posture throughout the day and to create a workspace that supports it. Implementing stretches in the opposite direction when we do notice hunching or slouching is also key.

In terms of an ergonomic workspace, Fulop recommends placing the computer screen at an arm's length (about 20 inches in front of you) with the top of the screen at eye level. Your elbows should have a 90-degree bend with straight wrists. "If you flex or extend the wrists on the keyboard or while using the mouse, nerve and tendon related musculoskeletal disorders such as carpal tunnel syndrome and epicondylitis can arise from the repetitive motion of typing and clicking," she warns. Lastly, the hips and knees should also be at 90 degrees with thighs parallel to the floor and feet flat on the floor. It might sound rigid, but such is the reality of trying to maintain proper posture.

Physical Support

If you're having a difficult time maintaining proper posture throughout the day, it might be time to consider a back brace for more immediate support. Licensed chiropractor Dr. Dani Olson recommends the BackEmbrace (from $59.99, backembrace.com), a product she uses every day. "I originally got a BackEmbrace for support while bending over my patients, but shortly realized that I felt calmer, could breathe deeper, and my neck felt much looser," she says. "I have personally studied the effects that BackEmbrace has on lowering my blood pressure and pulse rate. And, as a woman in my 50s, the gentle lift takes pressure off my internal organs, thereby improving digestion and circulation."

Beyond a brace, naturopathic doctor Dr. Joshua Rubinstein recommends using a back support during the work day. "This could be as simple as a rolled-up bath towel, secured with a rubber band at either end and placed horizontally at the beltline, with a second rolled-up towel placed vertically up the spine," he suggests. "The first towel keeps the pelvis in a neutral position, taking some of the low back stress. The towel going up the spine serves as a reminder to not collapse in the mid-back."

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