Recently I read this article about one woman’s saga of neck pain. Her struggle to come to reconcile the fact that her iPad is causing her recurring neck pain is emblematic of an all too common and painful functional adaptation to our increasingly technological world.
Every day I work with people whose jobs require them to sit for up to 12 hours hunched over a computer. Most of them tell me that the task of looking at a computer screen while trying to “sit up straight,” view the screen clearly and not hunch over is taking a toll on their bodies. Their doctors tell them that they have degenerative disks. Yet they worry more that they’re getting “old” before their time.
I teach them that their muscle pain is most likely not structural in nature; it is likely a functional problem of habituation that requires re-educating of the muscles to relax and release. The muscles have become very good at staying tight in order to be able to sit for hours at a time at their desk. They’ve simply developed an unfortunate muscular habit, which requires “un-learning” in order to regain the ability to self-correct their posture and move easy without pain. The first step in the process, however, is awareness.
The “posture of senility” is the posture of the computer generation.
Tilting the head slightly forward and down is the default posture for many – secretaries, teachers grading papers, college students reading and writing for long hours, computer programmers, journalists, and editors.
What’s important to be aware of is that while neck pain is an increasingly common complaint associated with personal technology use, the brain also co-contracts other muscles to teach the entire body to hold itself in a pattern of slumping: the shoulders hunch up, our shoulder blades become fixed in place, the abdominals tighten, our breathing becomes shallow, and the chest collapses inward. This is the “startle response” (or “red light reflex“) often associated with aging and considered the “senile posture.” This reflex is not only a reflex in response to fear or the need to protect, but is has become a muscle function adaptation to technological gadgets.
A picture is worth a thousand words and the photo at right says it all. This, unfortunately, has become the “new normal” for many. Even small children are becoming experts at slumping.
Stop right now – and notice whether or not you look like this little Indian boy, mesmerized by the computer screen in front of him? Is the back of your neck tight? Is your stomach tight? When was the last time you took a deep breath? How do the tops of your shoulders feel? If you straighten your neck to a comfortable, neutral position can you see your computer screen?
Somatic Exercises can help reverse neck pain.
Migraines, eye strain, shallow breathing, thoracic outlet syndrome, TMJ and mid/upper back pain are conditions that can develop as a result of this hunched and contracted posture. These conditions are also examples of Sensory Motor Amnesia, the condition of chronically tight muscles that have learned to stay contracted due to stress and repetitive movement. I have unconsciously created thoracic outlet syndrome in my own body from being intensely immersed in editing, and using the computer mouse in a less than relaxed manner. I reversed it using Somatic Exercises and pandiculation.
If you’re experiencing neck, back, and shoulder pain, here are a few suggestions to help you back from the edge of computer-itis related muscle pain:
And remember – movement is medicine. The brain only teaches the muscles to adapt to one’s environment. Today’s western industrialized society is more and more sedentary and people take fewer and fewer breaks to stand up, shake their hips, roll their shoulders, stretch out their arms or jump up and down.
Remind your muscles that they don’t have to stay tight and frozen; get up and move! Circle your arms, do the Twist, jump up and down, take some long, deep breaths and slowly roll your shoulders. Or lie down on your side and roll the top shoulder up, down, forward, back and in circles. Remind it that it doesn’t have to stay frozen in one place.
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