Proper posture is supposed to help keep our backs healthy. Why, then, do some experience back pain when sitting or standing properly? If you are trying to relieve back pain by improving posture and experiencing more of it, don’t give up just yet.
Muscles learn behavior. Technically, “muscle memory” refers to the brain’s tendency to record repeated behaviors and make them automatic in the future. If your posture trains your muscles to be tense or lax, eventually the brain will send signals to those muscles that cause them to tense up or disengage automatically. This is why proper posture is difficult to perform; it is a retraining of your muscles and brain that takes time.
Slouching, characterized by stooped shoulders, rounded lower back and tucked pelvis, is the classic example of poor posture. Let’s analyze the ways in which this positioning and training affects muscles. Rounded, stooped shoulders cause muscles in the chest to tighten and shorten in length. The natural lumbar arch in the lower back is flattened out by slouching; this strains the lower back muscles. Muscles in the stomach are not allowed to engage in this position, causing further strain to the lower back muscles which must support the upper body by themselves. Muscles within the hip are shortened when sitting for prolonged periods of time, and if your pelvis is not neutral, they will become even tighter.
The many muscular changes that slouching causes do not simply go away when you sit up straight; the tight muscles in the chest and hips will resist lengthening while the overstretched, strained muscles in the back will not be sufficiently conditioned to perform their task. This is why, at first, good posture can actually cause back pain.
It is still important to correct posture; even if your back didn’t hurt before, poor posture will eventually cause pain. As the tug-of-war increases between imbalanced muscles, you may suffer chronic pain due to tenseness and strain. If the muscles of the back cannot sufficiently support the spine’s alignment, you run the risk of disc and vertebral problems. Finally, spinal joints will eventually be affected by poor posture. Correcting your alignment can prevent chronic pain conditions.
Though it is important to work through the pain, you should not simply force your muscles into new positions without a complementary plan. You will need to lengthen your tight muscles and build your weaker ones to make correct posture possible and, eventually, painless.
For many people, simple stretching will be enough to restore length to tensed muscles. See the interactive map of muscles at http://www.fitnessforworld.com/stretching_science/stretching_exercises.htm to learn many ways to stretch them.
After stretching tense muscles, the exercises you do will focus on core strength. Developing the abdominal, lower back, hip and buttocks muscles will allow you to hold your spine up. See the Mayo Clinic’s slideshow of balanced core exercises at http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/core-strength/SM00047.
For some people, the damage done to the muscular system will require more than simple stretching and exercising. The help of a massage or physical therapist may be needed to relax tense muscles. Deep tissue massage or self-myofascial release can accomplish this. If postural dysfunction is severe, a physical therapist may need to guide you in exercise technique. Finally, if poor posture has caused your spine to become misaligned, you may require chiropractic care.
Another useful tip is to invest in a lumbar support cushion. While you work on developing a strong core, this type of cushion will help to support your upper body’s weight until your muscles are strong enough to do so without assistance.
If proper posture is causing you pain, this is a testament to the damage poor posture has done to your body. Your efforts can be assisted by stretching, exercising and using a lumbar cushion. If you are unable to correct your problem at home, don’t hesitate to seek out professional care. The future of your back may depend on it.