Help Yourself! is not designed to be a substitute for medical advice, or physical therapy advice, for that matter. We will restrict our advice to that which is helpful with minimal chances of being harmful. Simple things such as advice on posture or exercises can be harmful, because what is helpful for one person is harmful to to the next. Be careful when it comes to generic advice, and if you choose to follow it proceed with caution. If you have any doubts, see a qualified health care professional for an evaluation and recommendations which are appropriate for you.
It's actually more interesting and important than you might think. Please read on, but don't get too excited!
We're sticking to the basics (posture, breathing, biomechanics, ergonomics), because the basics are what's required in order to build a foundation of good health. We're also sticking to the basics because these are things that you can do for yourself, they take little or no time, and they're free.
OK, why is proper posture important? Quite simply, it's because with proper posture you minimize the effects of gravity. The fight between gravity and any living organism is a constant, but if you have good posture and body mechanics, (body mechanics will be covered at a later date) you will significantly minimize the effects of gravity. Gravity will ultimately win, but if you have good posture it will take a lot longer to do so, and you'll feel better along the way.
Think of it this way:
Your head probably weighs about fifteen pounds (about the weight of a bowling ball). If you put a bowling ball on a stick, and the stick was perfectly vertical, then the bowling ball would balance without effort, right? But what if you tilted the stick the slightest amount? The ball would fall.
When you're sitting with your head 'forward' of your body, this is equivalent to the bowling ball sitting on a tilted stick. Your head is being pulled to the ground by gravity. What keeps your head from falling?
(Your head doesn't fall because it's one of our highest priorities as humans to keep our eyes facing forward and to keep them level. We will twist, turn, and otherwise manipulate our bodies in order to achieve this state).
Small muscles in our neck and upper back, as well as some not so small muscles, stay contracted as long as our head is forward in relation to our body. This is one of the many 'substitutions' or 'compensations' that our bodies perform on a constant basis. It does keep our eyes forward and level, but it will ultimately result in neck and upper back pain, and maybe even headache or 'pinched nerve' problems.
Your muscles will ultimately get sore because the muscles that are asked to contract and stay contracted are 'dynamic' muscles, i.e. they are designed to contract, and relax soon thereafter. They are not designed to contract and stay contracted for minutes, months, or years, which is what most people ask them to do on a habitual basis.
Do this as an experiment: Try contracting your bicep muscle (the muscle on the front of your arm) for one minute. If you're like most people, the bicep started to hurt. It's a dynamic muscle, like most of the muscles in your upper back and neck. It wanted to relax fairly quickly. If you were contracting your soleus (a muscle in your lower leg), you could do so for hours without pain or fatigue. That's because the soleus is a postural muscle.
When you have proper posture, the postural muscles, not the dynamic muscles, are doing the work. Also, your skeleton is aligned better and provides better static support, so that all of your muscles, both dynamic and postural, get to relax more. (The improved skeletal alignment also allows for a larger 'intervertebral foramen', the 'hole' that your peripheral nerves travel through as they leave your spinal cord and travel to your limbs. There are many other advantages, but we'll leave it at that for now).
OK, how do you achieve proper posture? It's unique to each person, and you would be better off if you came in for some quick instruction, but let's see how well we can do here.
First of all, put your feet on the floor. This takes a significant load off of your skeleton and muscles, regardless of how bad your posture is.
Next, sit on a chair where the seat places your hips a bit higher than your knees. This rule varies from person to person, so experiment and feel what is best for you. It might be an inch higher, or several inches.
Now, here's the real trick to proper posture: Achieving 'pelvic neutral'. Pelvic neutral is when your pelvis is midway between the two extremes of an 'anterior tilt' and a 'posterior tilt'. Here's the easiest way to explain it: Pretend you have a tail. Stick your tail out, as far as you can with comfort. Then tuck your tail between your legs, as far as you can with comfort. Your shoulders, head, etc. may move, but only secondary to the movement of your pelvis. Don't substitute shoulder movement for pelvic movement.
Pelvic neutral is the point midway between these two extremes. It should be comfortable***. If it isn't, adjust a bit until you find a comfortable point.
Once you've followed these instructions, your head, neck, shoulder and upper body should be in fairly good alignment. Most people only need a little fine tuning (be it postural training, exercises, or soft tissue and joint mobilization) to achieve proper posture once they've followed these instructions.
***You want to make sure that pelvic neutral is comfortable for you. For some people, pelvic neutral might be a bad thing. E.g., if you have spinal stenosis, you're probably going to feel better if you're slumped with a posterior tilt, as though your 'tail was tucked between your legs.' There are other conditions that may effect you in different ways, so please be careful and only do this if it feels good. If you have any doubts or questions, please call us or call your physician. Also, even if these instructions are suited to you perfectly, you'll want to change gradually. As one of my teachers, Richard Jackson, PT, OCS, has said, "Nobody likes change except for wet babies." Be sure to change gradually, at a pace that you find comfortable.
Proper posture will eventually be of great benefit to you, but it may initially require a little effort (primarily mental, to change your habits) and a few aches and pains as your body adapts, but ultimately it should be of great benefit to most anyone that gives it a try. Good luck, and please call us with any questions!