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By: Kendall Lou Schmidt
Your head is at the center of everything. That big brain of yours is balancing ever so gently on top of your shoulders, and even the slightest change in its position can have a huge effect on your entire body. Forward head posture (FHP) is a very common postural deviation that affects the majority of the population. Not only is it unattractive, FHP can lead to some serious injuries, pain and loss of performance that will ruin your workouts and seriously impair your overall quality of life. This article is your guide to navigating your neck. We will go over the anatomy of forward head posture and how to diagnose it, the ways it affects your muscles, the effect that has on your performance and health, and the best exercises you can do for improvement.
FHP is a very common posture deviation where the head is positioned in front of the body, rather than stacked correctly over the shoulders. A person with forward head will have a skull that is leaning or jutting forward, causing the entire cervical spine to shift anteriorly. Over time, as the muscles of the neck work to support the weight of the head against its new center of gravity, muscular imbalances form, the vertebrae and discs begin to compressed and a cascade of secondary issues start to develop.
Head and shoulder posture is a critical component of your fitness and health. Poor posture in the head and neck will snowball into various problems that wreak havoc in all areas of your life, including your workouts and overall health. As the center of gravity of the head shifts forward, it alters the weight load on the muscles, soft tissue and bones that support it. As a result, muscles and joints in front of the neck lengthen and grow weak, while muscles in the back of the neck, upper back, and shoulders grow very tight. When these imbalances are not corrected, they intensify over time as daily tasks are performed, accelerate even faster when weight training activities are done with incorrect alignment, and eventually lead to a large array of secondary complications.
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When the head is aligned correctly over the shoulders, the shoulder blades and the muscles that control them are able to perform efficiently. This is especially critical during overhead movements like a shoulder press, and during shoulder flexion movements like a front raise8. Individuals with FHP have a much greater internal rotation and upward rotation of the scapula (shoulders that round forward and shrug up). As a result the serratus anterior, a muscle that runs from the middle border of the scapula to the ribs at the side of the chest, is much less active during exercise and while performing daily tasks8. The main function of the serratus anterior is moving the scapula forward and around the ribs as the arm is extended forward. Proper function of the stratus anterior is necessary to punch, push, press, and lift optimally. As the muscle atrophies and grows weak, shoulder problems are more likely to develop and the risk for injury and chronic pain increases dramatically4.
Overactive traps goes hand in hand with underactive serratus anterior muscles. The trapezius is one of the major muscles behind the neck that is shortened and overworked in forward head posture. Studies show that individuals with FHP have a significantly greater activity of both the upper and lower trapezius during loaded isometric shoulder flexion in the sagittal plane (holding the arms out in front of you). This can lead to neck and shoulder pain during weight bearing exercises like a front raise, or daily tasks like driving and doing computer work9. Persistent pressure in the muscles, tissues, bones and nerves in this area can lead to muscle spasms, compressed or herniated disks, arthritis, chronic neck pain, tension headaches, migraines1, balance disturbances and changes to gait speed7.
As if the detrimental effects on muscles, bones and nerves isn’t bad enough, forward head posture also impairs your breathing. When the head is aligned in a neutral position, the respiratory synergist muscles work in harmony and pulmonary functions of the lungs are the strongest. Severe FHP leads to overactivity of the sternocleidomastoid muscles (muscles that run from the breast bone and collar bone to the area of the skull just behind the ear) and the anterior scalene muscles (muscles that runs from the cervical vertebrae to the first rib). With these muscles working inappropriately, the vital capacity of the lungs is significantly reduced3. When you can’t breathe as deeply you get winded easier. Your body becomes less effective at getting the oxygen it needs to fuel the activities you demand of it. Whether your trying to make it through a strenuous workout, do mental gymnastics, or just perform basic bodily functions, FHP will lead to faster fatigue and impaired performance in every aspect of your life.
POSSIBLE SIDE EFFECTS OF FORWARD HEAD POSTURE
|Tingling or numbness in arms
|Headaches or migraines
|Loss of mobility in neck
|Loss of height
|Altered blood flow
|Loss of upper body strength
The first step to correcting any postural deviation is identifying that you have it. So how do you know if your head and neck are neutral, or if you have FHP? A quick assessment using a wall is an easy way to find out.
Would you believe that neck pain accounts for 15% of soft tissue problems seen by primary care doctors6? The solution isn’t painkillers. These issues are referred to physical therapy, because without addressing the muscular imbalances that cause the pain, the problem will only continue.
By stretching the muscles that are overworked and tight we can create mobility in the joints that have become stiff and rigid in the forward head posture. By strengthening the muscle that are neglected and weak we can create the stability in the neck and shoulders that is necessary for proper alignment. With as little as four week of consistent effort, you can see serious improvement is your forward head posture6.Sub-Occipital Release
The suboccipital muscles are positioned at the base of the skull just above the back of your neck. They are responsible for head movement like rocking, tilting, or rotating and also work to stabilize the head as it sits on top of the spine. By softening and loosening them, the head is able to move more efficiently through its preferred range of motion, alignment is improved, and less pressure is placed on the cervical spine. This can do wonders in helping alleviate headaches, neck pain, and more.
As the name suggest, the sternocleidomastoid (SCM) runs from the sternum and clavicle up to the mastoid process just behind the ear. When one of your SCMs contracts it rotates the head to the opposite side. If they both act together they flex and extend the head. In forward head posture the SCM shortens and grows tight. Self massage is a great way to release the muscle, decrease neck pain and improve posture and mobility.
The trapezius is a major muscle in the back that stabilizes the shoulder blades, moves the shoulder blades, and extends the head at the neck. In forward head posture, the neck is constantly extended, so the trapezius grows very tight. Creating length in the muscle can help improve alignment in the head and neck. Stretching the trapezius will also allow the shoulders to relax down further from the ears. As a result the other smaller muscles that work on the neck can also work more appropriately.
Training the deep cervical flexors is the most effective way to improve forward head posture 2. This group of muscles lies deep in the neck, behind the sternocleidomastoid, and include the longus capitis and the longus colli. Together they work to stabilize the neck and flex it forward like you would when tucking your chin; therefore, the best way to strengthen them is with chin tucks. Here are a variety of chin tuck variations you can incorporate into your gym routine and everyday life. With each variety please be gentle. Never try to force your head and neck into a position it isn’t willing to go yet.Upright Chin Tucks
Prone Chin Tucks
Supine Chin Tuck
Resistance Band Chin Tucks
As we discussed earlier, the serratus anterior tends to grow very weak as a result of FHP. Strengthening it is a great way to improve shoulder blade stability while in proper alignment, which will make your progress towards a neutral neck that much faster.
You might be wondering why forward head posture is so common in the first place. Here are some simple tips to lower your risk of developing FHP and all the complications that come with it.Stay off your smartphone
All those hours staring at your cell phone are spent in bad posture. Studies show a direct correlation between pain, fatigue and FHP with longer smartphone use5. It is recommended to take posture breaks of at least 20 minutes when using smartphones5, and while you are on them try to maintain your correct alignment.Set up your work staton
If you sit at a computer for extended periods of time, the number one most import thing you can do to improve your posture is set up your workstation correctly. Ideally your desk, chair and computer will be arranged in a fashion that allow your neck to remain relaxed and neutral while you work.
Your ideal neck position should also be maintained while you are lying down. Whether you are on your back or side, select a pillow that places you in a neutral neck. Do your absolute best to avoid sleeping on your stomach.Watch what you carry
Backpacks and purses can place a tremendous amount of stress on your spine. Studies on the spine have shown that daily backpack use can lead to dramatic postural changes. The younger the person, the greater the deformity1. Heavy purses or briefcases that are constantly carried on one shoulder can cause an imbalance in strength, shift the alignment of the spine, and create strain in the neck and shoulders.Stand tall
As you walk around town, stand in line at the grocery store, sit at the dinner table, or do any other daily activity, focus on maintaining your best posture. Pretend a little string is tied to the crown of your head and it is constantly being lifted up to the sky. Maintain a gentle tuck in the chin and lengthen from tail to crown. Engage your core and relax your shoulders. Before you know it you will break any bad habits and great posture will be your new normal.
Stay tuned for more articles in this posture series. More often than not, one postural deviation comes with others. If you have FHP, odds are you also have some degree of forward rounded shoulders or a curve in your upper back. Good news is…. I will be covering this next!