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The Dread Computer Head (and Neck)

On today’s blog, two more questions, this time regarding head/neck and upper back.

Q1: how to you overcome computer hunch? And turtle head (maybe more neck but I had to believe if shoulders are aligned then neck is aligned?)

Q2. Why that knot seems to develop in between my shoulder blades and spine, even when I think I’m over it, it returns.

First of all, did you know there is a game that some kids (and immature adults, ahem) play called “Turtle or Pig” where you classify people in a crowd (say on the subway) as either a turtle or a pig? You’d be surprised how well it works. I’m very much a turtle, and I come from a family of turtles. So I totally have a turtle head. But in this question, I think the person means a head that sticks out ahead of the rest of the body, like a turtle poking its head out of a shell. Oh, I have that too, but it’s getting better.

The overly rounded upper back and forward head are often seen together and the exceedingly rounded back will of course put the head forward and when that person then looks straight ahead, their neck will have hyper-extended curvature at the top and hyper-flexed curvature at the bottom.

This is associated with computer usage because of the tendency to curl forward and then look straight ahead at the screen, but many (perhaps most) people have this structural spinal alignment. I think it all starts with the shoes, the positive heels that we all wear from our first pair of shoes creates a slightly (or in the case of serious heels, a great) amount of plantar flexion in the ankle, putting us “downhill” even though we are on level ground. Then two things occur:

  1. Our calf musculature is shortened, eventually permanently, which puts a hitch in our step, creating a forward whiplash force through the body which throws the head forward with each step, and
  2. The “walking is falling” model, where we lean forward and step out to catch ourselves.

So how do we overcome this? I would say that you start with the shoes, and transitioning to a shoe with no heel. Vigorous amounts of Calf Stretch (read this post) throughout the day. This post will help too (click here).

Then, Drop Your Ribs, which seems counterintuitive when correcting a forward head, you feel like you should lift the chest and pull the shoulders back, but that will not correct the issue so much as just mask it. So instead, drop the ribs down so that the bottom ribs in front are right over the pelvis. This has the advantage of exposing the upper rib/neck/head position, and now you can see what is going on there.

The part of the reader’s question regarding shoulders aligned=neck aligned is interesting, because that assumes (rightly) a relationship between the two, but that by fixing one, the other will improve, and that’s not always the case. As you can see from the drawing above, correcting one exposes what is happening in the other, making it appear worse!

Mobilizing the thoracic spine is necessary to get the excessive curvature to correct, some Restorative Exercises that help with this are: Thoracic Mobility over the half dome, Rhomboid Push Up, Crescent Stretch, Floor Angels, Windmill, and all the Hanging Protocol.

I teach an exercise that brings awareness to the muscles Serratus Posterior Superior (and another for SPInferior), to bring more extension to the upper thoracic/lower cervical spine and more volume to the bottom of the thoracic spine which is often sheared in the case of a rib thrust (the opposite of dropping the ribs). Below is an illustration of the Serratus Post. Sup.:

By Anatomography – en:Anatomography, CC BY-SA 2.1 jp,
https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22256745

 

But lest you think you can “fix” this alignment purely with corrective exercise, these are not magic therapeutic exercises. They are meant to show you how you can move, what is not moving, how to move it more, better and more safely. The key to really correcting any such ailment is with lifestyle changes, a more abundant “whole food” movement diet, and the cessation or decrease of detrimental habits (such as chronic computer positioning).

Lastly, the cervical spine and head position can be corrected through some movement re-education and practice. Join me this October 14 at 11:00 in Toronto for a two-hour Cervical Spine Workshop! Email to reserve your spot. Visit the Workshop page of this site to learn more.

See? Don’t I look like a turtle?

Q.2 – because this is not a medical blog, but a movement one, I cannot comment as to what is causing this. You should of course rule out anything serious by seeing your physician. What feels like a “knot” may not even be muscular. It can also be referred pain from the neck or a variety of other things.
If you have ruled out everything and it is deemed to be muscular in nature, the above information pertains to this area as well. It is possible for example that the weight of the head in a forward position is creating excessive loads to this mid-thoracic area. It’s also possible that dropping the ribs (a good thing) creates a tensile load (pull) to muscles that have adapted to a shortened positioning by the chronic rib thrust posture habit and are now experiencing length for the first time in a long time, which is tiring. Or it could be so many other things.

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Comments

5 thoughts on “The Dread Computer Head (and Neck)

  • I have a personal theory beyond your positive heel theory. I never wore positive heels beyond sneakers, and intuitively gravitated towards the lowest I could find from an early age. I grew up before computer usage and cell phones. Backpacks for 13 years of school are my guess for another large factor in forward thrust heads. I didn’t realise the connection until I was using baby carriers, but anything on my back causes me to lean forward to counterbalance. Somehow that also causes me to extend my neck forward. I observe students walking now and I see the same in them by an early age.

    • That is a totally plausible theory. People do tend to bend to carry weight by displacement, rather than by strength, and that really throws the head out there! What I was hoping that people would get (and you did) is that it’s not just a POSITION that is causing this alignment, it is forces, created under movement, that sends body parts flying 🙂

  • Do you have a videos of the exercises you teach for the serratus posterior muscles? I would love to try them out, computer work always makes the area of my superior scream 🙁 So much so I can hardly do much of it at all.

    • Hi Robin, I don’t have that on video. It’s rather subtle and needs a fair bit of prep before the area can move, so I prefer to do that in person.
      In the meantime, maybe you can vary the position you work in? It depends on if you are at a traditional office or have the ability to change it up. I also have movement breaks or bouts between sessions on the computer or change my position as often as I can. The height of the screen might be easier to change, and if that’s possible, it will give you different head/neck/shoulder positions. Hope that helps.

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