Although you have probably never heard the term Upper Cross Syndrome, I can guarantee that you have seen someone with this condition. Take a second and look at the people surrounding you currently. Do you notice anyone hunched awkwardly over a keyboard or smart phone?
What does it look like?
Upper Cross Syndrome can be easily seen when looking at someone from the side. Their head tends to jut forward; the shoulders are drawn up, forward and rounded; the curve of the upper back becomes more pronounced, and may even appear to have a hump back. This appearance is caused by continual poor posture, and the body has been placed in this position so many times that it becomes ingrained or programmed as the new posture.
Why is it so common?
The ever increasing use of computers and handheld electronic devices has made this particular condition much more prevalent today. After thousands of years developing the ability to stand tall and upright, we have started to regress back to the hunched over posture and position of our ancient ancestors in a very short period of time. The major contributing factor to the decline can be seen in our current way of living. We have transitioned from a life that required movement and strength seen in famers, hunters, gatherers, and laborers, to a life that requires long periods of inactivity and time in front of a screen as seen in office workers, programmers, students, children and people that utilize technology.
What does it feel like?
- Upper Back and Neck pain/soreness/stiffness – Patients always phrase it as, “this is where I carry all my stress”, and they point to the top of the back and neck. In times of stress the body has a natural tendency to draw the shoulders up and in, contributing to the already existing Upper Cross Syndrome.
- Tension headaches – starts at the back of the skull and works around to the sides of the head. Can feel like the muscles at the base of the head are really tight. Occur about mid-day or more so in the afternoon and a frequent basis.
- Numbness and tingling- This can occur in the upper back and also down the arms; due to nerve compression
- Shoulder Pain- Tendonitis of the rotator cuff tendons, irritation of the shoulder and clavicle joint, and development of bone spurs are another consequence of long standing Upper Cross Syndrome.
- Shortness of breath – Deep full breaths are hard to obtain.
How does bad posture cause all these problems?
People were not designed to sit at a desk and stare at a monitor or to take notes during lecture for 6-8 hours a day. We were designed for movement!! At a certain point during the 6-8 hour day, proper posture starts to give way to comfort. Below is an example of the postural changes that contribute to the development of UCS
- Forward Head Posture – Do you find yourself leaning forward towards your screen or looking down at your phone? This leads to the forward migration of the head, which on average weights 10-12 pounds, but every inch of forward travel can double the weight placed on supporting structures. This change in weight distribution is much like holding a weight close to your chest, verses holding it out at arm’s length. Holding it away from the body fatigues the muscles and you might even have to use the opposite arm to help brace the weight. Over time, this excess stress compresses the neck, strains muscles (dull achiness), cause nerve compression (numbness/tingling/sharp pain), arthritis (dull achiness) and disc bulges (sharp, stabbing, numbness, tingling).
- Muscles- Look down at your elbows, are they at your sides when using your computer or are they resting up on your desktop? What about using your smart phone or tablet? Our muscles conform to the strain we place on them; if a muscle is constantly tightened it will have a tendency to shorten and stay tight and the opposite goes for stretching a muscle. With UCS the muscles of the chest, posterior neck, and upper shoulders become tight from constant contraction, while the anterior neck and lower shoulder muscles lengthen form constant stretch. This process lead to a rounding of the shoulders and a hunching of the back.
- Tension Headaches – UCS contributes to tightness of the posterior neck and upper shoulder muscles, a main contributor to muscle tension headaches.
- Shoulder problems – Have you ever tried pushing a shopping cart with a bad wheel? Does it take a lot more effort to keep the cart moving in the right direction as well as more energy to push it around? Biomechanical changes caused by muscle lengthening and tightening can have a similar effect on the shoulders. With UCS the shoulders to roll forward and the upper back to become rounded due to muscle changes. This changes the biomechanics of the shoulders, causing stress and strain on ligaments, muscles, joints, and bone of the shoulder. This can lead to bone spurs, arthritis, tendonitis, bursitis, and rotator cuff injury.
- Shortness of breath- Is it easy to blow up a balloon with rubber bands wrapped around it? Heck no! Rounded shoulders and a hunched back decrease the space the rib cage can expand. UCS can make it difficult to take in a full deep breath.
What can be done to correct UCS?
That is exactly what I will be discussing in UCS Part 2, so stay tuned for our next blog post!! In the meantime, check out our video below to learn more.
Dr Adam Gingras, DC