Preventing and Recovering from RSI
Slouching Off to Injury: Poor Posture Is No Joke
If the mothers of yesteryear were here today, they would throw up their hands in despair at the general state of posture in this nation.
The United States has become a country of slouchers. If you study photographs of Americans who lived 100 years ago, you'll see many people standing and sitting with spines straight and tall. Today, even our alleged paragons of beauty and prowess -high fashion models and some athletes-slump their shoulders, sway their backs, and hang their heads.
Walking, standing, and sitting tall are not just about good looks. Proper posture is crucial to preventing myriad ailments, including repetitive strain injury (RSI) and back pain. No state-of-the-art workstation compensates for the risks introduced by slouching.
Good Posture Ends at School
Most toddlers have perfect posture. Their heads sit atop straight spines. But when school begins, children literally go into a slump because of the hard, molded chairs in many schools. Kids squirm, wriggle, and slide in their seats as they try to get comfortable, but eventually, their bodies begin to take on the shape of the chairs. Their spines curve into a "C," heavy heads lob forward, shoulders slump, and bellies sag. As these patterns continue, some teenagers and young adults look prematurely middle-aged because their trunk muscles are too weak to keep them upright. Eventually, these postural habits become full-fledged postural deformities that can be difficult or impossible to correct.
Most sedentary workers have adapted to years of improper seated posture. Their backs sway because their abdominal muscles are weak, their shoulders round, and their heads droop forward. More problems arise when people favor one of their legs, twist their trunks, carry one of their shoulders higher than the other (usually the result of toting heavy shoulder bags or briefcases), and wear high heels.
Hang Down Your Head and Cry
Poor posture comes with a hefty price tag. Picture yourself holding a bowling ball close to your body. Now hold the ball at arm's length; it feels much heavier. If you keep your head forward as you compute, its 10 to 12 pounds feel like 30 to 36 pounds of force on your overworked neck muscles.
Rounded shoulders are generally accompanied by overstretched mid-back muscles and tight pectoral muscles, which can compress the brachial plexus, an important network of nerves. If muscle tightness impairs nerve function or blood flow, you may experience numbness, coldness, tingling, and weakness in your arms and hands. Chronically contracted muscles also have a limited range of motion and operate at reduced efficiency, leading to a vicious cycle of tightness, pain, and more tightness. Obesity can also lead to poor posture because the weight of the belly pulls on the spine, resulting in back pain and strain.
Stand and Sit Tall
To stand properly, keep your ears, shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles in a straight line. Your chin should be level, tilted neither up nor down. Keep your shoulder blades together. Pull your navel to your spine, and keep your lower back long, rather than arched or tucked under.
Sitting tall should resemble standing tall as closely as possible. Elongate the spine, lift the ribs off the waist, and keep the shoulder blades flat and the neck long. Imagine that you're pushing the sky with the top of your head.
Sitting well is more difficult than standing up straight. Sitting is an unstable activity because you have to balance atop your curved "sit" bones. If you're too weak to hold an erect posture for long, you automatically use chairs' back rests to prop yourself up. Most chairs don't support the spine properly, so you sink down in your seat. This sunken posture cramps your diaphragm, making it hard to breathe properly because your lungs can't fully expand. When doing desk work, lean forward from the hips with a straight back rather than slumping over. Your lungs will have more room to inflate.
Poor posture also interferes with proper digestion, according to Manhattan physical therapist Sylvie Erb. She says internal organs such as the liver can compress the intestines, and the resulting poor circulation and tightness of the diaphragm can lead to constipation. Add the strain of holding the hands to mouse or keyboard and the typical computer user's tendency to hold his or her head forward, and you have a recipe for upper extremity distress.
A Tall Order: Sit Up Straight
Sitting and standing properly requires strong, toned muscles. (See "Exercise for Computer Athletes.") Posture isn't something you do once a day and then forget about. Those 75 crunches in the morning won't help if you walk around with your belly hanging out the rest of the day. Make a habit of holding your stomach in and balancing your head lightly atop your long spine. Enroll in a postural training program, such as the Alexander technique, and practice the mechanics of good posture until it becomes second nature to you.
If this advice sounds like your mother's, well, Mom was right. Maybe the most important thing she ever said was, "Sit up straight!"