Could That Nagging Pain be Your Posture
This might seem like an utterly basic, common sense question not deserving any screen space, but my long professional experience as a personal trainer, rehab specialist and corporate health and wellness mentor, screams otherwise. So here we are, back to addressing fundamentals of one of nature’s most complex creations
– the human body.
The world keeps moving at a brisker pace. People are constantly busy doing their stuff, be it working, clawing up the corporate ladder, racing to meet deadlines or chasing endless thankless chores, day after day. A relatively minor percentage engages in some form of active health and fitness pursuits- recreational or competitive, while majority is still relatively sedentary in their daily routines. The health and fitness industry keeps churning out programs in changing avatars to cater to the fickle attention span of the populace they currently engage (encouraging this fickleness to some degree) and to attract newbies into its fold. At the same time, the health insurance sector keeps witnessing surging numbers in policies being drafted and consumed and not always for life threatening conditions. A bit of irony there. While this opens up multiple streams of discussions, I am going to focus on the most fundamental (banal if you wish) component and leave the rest for later. The point I choose to make is this –
If you don’t focus on ergonomics, the economics is going to be skewed. Of healthcare, pain management and general happiness.
Many people suffer from pain and discomfort at some point or the other. Some sadly appear to have embraced it as a permanent fixture in their lives. Certainly not a positive indicator of the state of things around us or a pleasant commentary of how we live and work. Continuous exposure to and dealing with such people across strata and lifestyles, points to a very glaring and basic lacuna – lack of control and awareness. Over (and more importantly of) the body and basic movements. This cognitive deficiency in understanding the power of control and it’s functional implications in our daily lives continues to stand out like a sore thumb. Whether it is the basic act of sitting, standing, walking and lying down on the one hand or the active pursuit of sports and fitness programs on the other- it shows up pretty much everywhere. It appears we have awareness of a lot of what lies outside and around us, but little of what lies within and how to harness it!
This begs two basic questions.
If the foundation is weak can the structure hold for long? (No).
Could something as basic as posture be a source of ongoing misery and pain? (Yes!).
WHAT DO YOU UNDERSTAND BY ‘POSTURE’?
Posture is defined as the position in which you hold your body upright against gravity while standing, sitting or lying down. Proper posture dictates how well we perform all our daily activities. It’s not simply about looking confident. Good posture involves training the body to perform all functional activities in a manner that places the least stress on the musculoskeletal system, both in motion and at rest. It involves maintaining alignment of the joints in such a manner that the corresponding muscles, tendons and ligaments engaged for a specific purpose, feel the least strain.
More often than not, chronic pain and discomfort can be linked to improper posture and the resultant undesirable adaptations the body resorts to. Back ache, neck ache and shoulder ache are some of the most common complaints that can frequently be traced back to poor posture, not to mention individual trigger points in different parts of the body.
Lugging around a body is different from carrying it with grace, vigour and purpose.
SO WHAT IS GOOD POSTURE? WHY IS IT IMPORTANT?
As stated above, it is maintaining optimal position of the bones, muscles, joints and all tissues of the body, to allow it to function as nature intended. It implies maintaining alignment between structures on both sides (right and left) as well. This is also referred to as ‘Neutral alignment’. In this position the weight of the body is supported primarily by the skeletal structure, greatly reducing muscular stress and strain all over, allowing for optimal performance.
With repeated poor posture the body is gradually forced to initiate adaptive changes and patterns to compensate for imbalances, leading to chronic pain conditions, fatigue, joints stress, tightness in muscles, impaired balance, overuse of select muscles and painful movements. Over a period of time it could even adversely impact digestion, respiration and functioning of the nervous system, given that vital organs too need optimal postural position to perform with peak efficiency. All of these negatively affect health and increase stress in life. Not to mention added costs in terms of protracted treatments and doctor visits.
By ignoring the foundational elements of the body, you are repeatedly reinforcing negative patterns and subjecting it to compensations, against what nature intended.
While postural inefficiencies can manifest anywhere in the body, the most common ones are linked to incorrect ways of sitting, standing and lying down. This further impacts smooth movement, so it would make good sense to start with correctives of these basic actions. They form the foundation and the sooner one addresses them, the faster one is on the way to pain-free state, good health and a happier life.
For a more intelligent (and hopefully long lasting) understanding, pay attention to the spinal curves and pelvic tilts associated with different postures. (See the images). These tend to suffer the most in postural deviations. The associated stress on the musculoskeletal system should then become a tad more intuitive to understand and appreciate.
SOME COMMON POSTURE CORRECTIONS
Feet should touch the floor (flat). Use foot rest if they don’t reach floor.
Push hips back so that low and mid back are supported and the buttocks touch the back of the chair. All three normal back (spinal) curves should be present. Use back support (rolled towel or lumbar pillow) if needed.
Keep a small gap between back of knees and the front of the seat.
Knees should ideally be slightly below hip level.
Don’t cross your legs. Ankles should be aligned with or slightly in front of the knees.
Keep shoulders relaxed, elbows by the side and forearms parallel to ground.
Distribute body weight evenly on both hips.
Avoid sitting in the same position for long periods.
Place your body weight primarily on the balls of the feet, weight evenly distributed on both feet.
Keep knees slightly bent (‘soft’ as the expression is sometimes used. As in, not locked back and taut).
Keep feet about shoulder width apart.
Stand tall with shoulders relaxed, rolled gently back and down.
Keep chin parallel to floor and your head level. Earlobes should be in line with shoulders. Don’t allow the head to push forward, backward or tilt to the side.
Let arms hang naturally down the sides of the body.
Keep stomach tucked in. (Don’t hold breath and don’t allow midriff to sag). Your core muscles play an important role in helping you stand erect and maintain good posture. When you slouch, you shut them off which is not good news in the long run.
Imagine you have a thread pulling you tall going from the floor, through the center of your body all the way to the top of your head and out, to help visualize the desired posture. Aka “standing tall”. (I am not a fan of the “stomach in, chest out” command. This, in my experience, is rarely interpreted correctly and results in an even more skewed posture.
Avoid standing in same position for long. You could rest one foot at a time on a foot rest or pedestal (not high) but without breaking body alignment.
Softer mattresses usually accentuate back pain since they provide little or no support to the natural spinal contours. While hard mattresses are recommended, firmness is a matter of finding balance between comfort and ergonomic support. Find one that feels right for you, helps you sleep better and relieves back stress.
Pillow should support the neck. Neck shouldn’t be drooping or too high from rest of the body. Special pillows to help maintain good sleeping positions are available and could make the needed difference, especially if you are prone to frequent neck stress and headaches.
Avoid sleeping on your stomach. Especially on soft mattresses as they tend to sag and place stress on the back. If that is your preferred position, look at the image below to help you sleep in a way that reduces spinal pressure.
If you sleep on your side, placing a (thin) pillow between the legs could provide better alignment and alleviate pain.
If sleeping on your back, placing a pillow under your knees would provide better sleeping posture.
BASIC HACKS FOR BETTER POSTURE:
Follow an active lifestyle to maintain better health of joints and muscles. Weak muscles cannot play their supporting role effectively and weak joints don’t do a good job of supporting body weight. This can cause and/or further compound postural problems.
Learn to use proper muscles (develop adequate strength of these) and techniques for all the basic movements constituting our functional lives – pushing, pulling and rotation (twisting).
Be mindful. Pay attention to your posture several times during the day till good posture becomes more norm than exception. Stretches can help relieve pain, but unless posture is corrected the underlying source of pain and discomfort continues.
Adjust table, chair and laptop height according to your height and eye level.
Excessive use of smart phones and hand held devices are known culprits for putting considerable strain on the neck, shoulders and spine, encouraging poor posture. Use them judiciously. The image below should drive the point home, loud and clear, I hope.
Remember, bad posture takes time to develop so correcting it will take time too. It’s a consequence of bad (postural) habits and habits are hard to kick. But it’s worth the effort working on yourself for better health and better life.
**Images have been sourced from several ergonomics and orthopedic sites. They may be subject to copyright and have been used for purpose of academic illustration only.