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Beat Back Pain with Proper Posture

By Alan Williams, PT, OTR/L, ATC, CSCS

What is it with grandmothers and posture? In between baking pies and pinching our cheeks, my grandma was always, always telling me, “Stand up straight, Alan. You don’t want to be a hunchback.” I’ll bet yours was fond of a similar saying. When I had children of my own, my mother and her friends would give the same admonishments to my kids, “Stand up straight, dear. It looks so much nicer.” It all makes me smile as I think of my grandma and how proud she must be that I now teach others about proper posture as part of my career.

As defined by the Cambridge Dictionary of American English, posture is “a position of the body, or the way in which someone holds their body when standing, sitting, or walking.” First, let’s examine what good posture IS before we look at what it is NOT. Good posture is the easiest, most natural positing for the body. The human spine has a S-curve shape; this allows it to act like a coil or spring, able to absorb force efficiently while maintaining its strength and stability. Good posture is that which allows the spine to maintain its natural shape.

Next, good posture is energy efficient. When the spine is allowed to be in its most natural position, the energy required for staying upright is placed on the body’s strongest muscles rather than ligaments and joints (which are made for movement rather than weight-bearing, grunt work). This principle also transfers to walking, running, and jumping. When the muscles provide the power to propel the body, the joints and ligaments are allowed to focus on doing their job (moving the body by utilizing the muscles’ power) efficiently without the added stress that can lead to injuries and other conditions, such as overuse syndromes.

There are two primary types of poor posture. Kyphosis (where the shoulders slump and round forward) is becoming increasingly common in our computer-centric society. Because the shoulders hang forward away from their gravitational base, kyphosis posture puts increased stress on the upper back, shoulders, and especially the neck. The opposite is lordosis; also called “swayback,” this is where the lower back curves too far forward, putting stress on the lower back and hips.

Some things can predispose you to having bad posture (scoliosis, osteoporosis, or a forward-tilting pelvis, for example), and persons with these conditions should have their posture evaluated by a physical therapist or doctor as part of their overall treatment. However, for the vast majority of people, bad posture is simply a bad habit. But just like biting your fingernails or smoking, improper posture can be corrected with time, determination, and an appropriate plan of action.

I’ve found that a system of checkpoints is very successful in correcting posture. When sitting at your desk, set a timer for five minutes. This will be your “Posture Checkpoint” timer. Every time it goes off, evaluate your posture – 1) Head straight with your chin neither out nor tucked in; 2) Shoulders comfortably back; 3) Stomach tucked in; 4) Feet flat on the floor. As you become more familiar with what good posture feels like, you can extend the time in between posture checks; five minutes becomes ten, which becomes fifteen and then thirty, until you’ve broken your habit of bad posture.

This same principle can be applied while standing, walking, and driving. Not that you must be constantly interrupted by a timer, but set checkpoints for yourself throughout the day. Every time the digital clock displays the number two in the time, check your posture. Every time you sip your water, check your posture. Every time your co-worker brags about her new boyfriend, check your posture. Turn it into a game, and you are sure to succeed.

Don’t let back pain keep you down. Call 463-0022 today for your FREE Back Pain Assessment!