Would you hang a large bowling ball around your neck for hours on end and expect to get no neck pain?
On average, an adult human head weighs approximately 12lb and should be balanced directly above your spine, so that your ear is in line with your shoulder. Bad posture, sitting at a desk, slumping, texting and working at a computer can all cause the head to move forwards of this position, moving it away from its centre of gravity. This can create what is known as a forward head posture (FHP).
For every inch you move your head forward, the weight of your head will increase by 10lb per inch. This means that if your head is positioned 3 inches further forwards than it should be, it can weigh in the region of 40lbs. This places a tremendous level of increased stress on both the lower cervical and the upper thoracic spine. The muscles in your upper back and neck must also work much harder to stabilise and support the head, often leading to neck pain, shoulder pain and muscle tightness. Headaches at the base of the skull and cervical disc degeneration can also occur.
Research has shown that FHP can adversely affect your ability to breathe. Indeed, it can reduce respiratory muscle strength and can reduce lung capacity by up to 30%. This is caused by the loss of cervical lordosis, which impedes the contraction of the hyoid muscles. This particularly affects the inferior hyoid muscle which helps to lift the first rib when breathing in.
If FHP becomes chronic, it’s common to develop a fatty looking pad at the base of the neck. Otherwise known as a Dowager’s hump, this occurs as the body attempts to protect itself from the excessive load placed on the lower cervical and upper thoracic spine. The body begins to lay down connective tissue, forming an extracellular matrix interwoven with fat cells. A prominent hump can develop over time as the superficial layers become excessively thick. Whilst a Dowager’s hump isn’t painful in its own right, it can lead to increased neck stiffness and tightness. To overcome this, exercise, regularly turning your head and performing gentle neck stretches is important. However, prevention is better than cure.
To prevent a FHP and a potential Dowager’s hump from occurring, maintaining a correct posture is critical. Looking at your own posture can be difficult. However, the simplest way to do this is to try to keep your ear in line with your shoulder, especially when sitting, driving, using a computer or reading. Muscle release techniques can also help to release any neck muscle tightness caused by FHP.
It’s critical to maintain a good posture for neck and soft tissue health. Therefore, if you’re struggling with FHP or any related neck pain or headaches, seek a full postural assessment and treatment by a qualified physio.