Forward Head Position and Chronic Pain
Most of us over-use our digital devices. This is just a fact and this is the world we live in today. Our digital devices have provided us the luxury of connectivity and a plethora of information at any given moment in time. Like with everything else, whether this is good news or bad news depends on how we use it and what our overall relationship with it is. We can choose to demonize the smart phone and social media, but I’m sure they aren’t going away any time soon. What if we learned to use these device as tools for understanding ourselves better? Our digital use can serve as a vehicle for self-observation and regulation if we choose so. Noticing our embodied relationship with anything in our lives can be extremely beneficial. Pausing to sense and feel how things are arising within our own bodies can be a gift. When we take the time to notice and feel, we empower ourselves with choice—the choice to do something different.
For most people, being on a digital device results in a forward head position. To begin your own investigation of the effects of forward head position, pause and notice how you are sitting right now. Is your head leaning forward a bit to read these words? What is happening in your shoulders? Do you feel any spots of tension from your head, neck, shoulders, or upper back? These days, it is extremely common for people to suffer from headaches, neck, shoulder, and back pain induced by stress and stressful body posture. The human head weighs around 10-11 pounds and when it is held for lengthy periods of time in a forward position, it creates excessive stress for the cervical spine, shoulder joints, thoracic spine, and all corresponding soft tissues front and back.
To understand how the body responds to asymmetry, I love the phrase Thomas Myers uses, Tensegrity. Tensegrity means that the integrity of a structure is derived from the balance of the tension members. In the human body, the tension members are the soft tissues. When we hold our bodies in an imbalanced way for lengthy periods of time, our soft tissues respond accordingly. In a head-forward position, front soft tissues can tighten while back-side soft tissues can become overly-stressed in an elongated position. There can be loss of symmetry front to back and or left to right. Wherever the imbalance is, related structures become stressed. And did I mention that the head weighs 10-11 pounds?! That’s a lot.
A forward head position puts excessive stress on the cervical intervertebral discs which can lead to bulging discs and neuropathy (traveling nerve pain/sensation into the arms and hands). The shoulder joints can also suffer from a prolonged forward position that typically accompanies the forward head position. Since everything is connected, the rest of the spine can be affected as well.
A slumped forward position has also been shown to diminish the ability of our lungs and respiratory system to function fully. Pause. Sit up tall and take a deep breath. Ahhh.
Forward head position is also connected to the primal startle or stress response. If you observe any animal, the head instinctually juts forward upon being startled or scared, so it’s not just our digital use that can cause a slumped forward position. Research also shows that a slumped or forward head posture can have a profound effect on our mood and self-esteem. Want to feel more confident, clear, and ready? Look away from the screen and open your chest. Yes.
If your job requires you to be at a computer or on a smart-phone for much of the day, chances are you are feeling the effects in your body. Headaches, moodiness, shoulder, or back pain could all be connected to the way you are holding your body. The first step to alleviating any pain you are having is to be more aware of how you are holding your body and how you feeling throughout the day. Especially notice if your head is dropping forward. Reposition yourself, your phone, or your computer so that you can properly balance your head on your spine. Imagine that the head is a helium balloon, floating and lifting the spine tall. Take periodic breaks to check-in with your body. Close your eyes and give yourself a few big breaths. It doesn’t take much time at all. Get up and walk around and do a few movements to relieve tension.
Rebalancing your body is multifaceted. Here are some key things to remember:
Awareness is everything. Make it a habit to pause and notice what you are feeling.
Re-establish symmetry from what you feel. Reposition yourself toward balance.
Help your brain to remember forgotten soft tissues. Yoga and movement is not solely about strengthening and or stretching. Often, our brains just have to remember how to activate and let go in certain places. Slow, mindful movement is vital.
Here are a few movements that I find helpful when I have longer days at my desk. I hope you find them helpful!
If you enjoy reading about these topics, you can find much more in my new book, Embodied Posture: Your Unique Body and Yoga.