What is Poor Posture?
Poor posture begets neck pain. When your spine and head are not aligned, the muscles that endure the most stress are those responsible for supporting your head. As carriers of your skull and its precious contents, your brain, neck muscles play one of the most important roles in the body. Great responsibility incurs great stress, and neck muscles are no exception to the rule. A feat of engineering, the always relatively skinny neck bears the whopping 10 to 12 pounds that makes up your head. Add to this the pull of gravity against which every skeletal muscle must resist, and you get a significantly heavy load and along with this, a lot of neck strain and tension.
What Causes Neck Pain?
The neck, also known as the cervical spine, houses the spinal cord and the nerves that transmit messages from the brain to the rest of your body, and back again. The cervical spine counts seven vertebrae that, stacked as a column, connect the thoracic spine, or upper back, to the skull. Linking the building blocks are interfaces, or facet joints, that bring together articular cartilage and synovial fluid. When the cartilage breaks down, the underlying bones are left to grind against each other with no cushioning. This cartilage wear, called osteoarthritis, is one of the leading causes of chronic neck pain and stiffness in the neck.
Forward Head Posture
The joints in your neck enable the rotational, twisting movements that our heads drive to have eyes on whatever is in front of us at a present moment. When the head falls forward to accommodate the view of a computer, for example, the whole spine can be burdened with an extra 10 pounds per inch. In other words, your neck muscles, the tendons connecting them, and the ligaments that link your bones, are now forced to carry an additional 10 pounds of weight they were not designed to support.
Worse yet, the forward-head position becomes habitual with repetition. While pain communicates that the posture is incorrect, we often forget how to correctly position ourselves. Traction devices like Neck Hammocks remind your body of what correct alignment feels like. In a nutshell, Neck Hammocks mimic the principles of suspension that your body assumes when properly aligned. When you place your head in a Neck Hammock, you are effectively teaching your body to adopt the neutral position that cancels out strain and pain and helps achieve "good posture".
Strain of any kind increases with time, but stress exerted on neck muscles is more noticeable than most. Over the years, a habitual misplacement of your head will cement your entire frame into a position that you may feel stuck in. This is because the muscles you would use to correct the position, like those you would use to lift your head if you were hunched over, have quite literally died. More precisely, the cells that make up the muscle fiber of the muscular groupings needed to accomplish a certain movement have shrunk from lack of use. With no blood to nourish them, cells are starved of life-giving molecules like oxygen and Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) that is essential for delivering and storing chemical energy.
How to Reverse Poor Posture
Featured prominently in fairytales, hunched backs are synonymous with old-age. Culturally, we’ve come to accept them as natural law. But they need not be. Anatomy begs to differ. Exercising can reverse the positions that are commonly identified with poor posture.
Safe Workouts For Seniors
The challenge of working out is doing so safely. This is true at any age, but you must be particularly careful as a senior. The last thing you need is to hurt yourself while exercising; injury completely defeats the purpose of adopting an exercising regimen. Training can feel like a Catch 22: don’t do it and your balance and overall health worsens; do it and you’ll hurt yourself anyway. But there is a way to heal. The path to health just may look different than you thought.
Not moving is not an option. In fact, it is lack of movement, not aging properly, that causes the problems that result in pain, discomfort, and degeneration—in a word, atrophy. When you move, blood rushes throughout your vascular system, feeding energy to your muscles and soft tissues. Consider a revisited Catch 22: if you do not feed your cells, they will die; when they die, they can no longer absorb life-giving molecules. In a word, moving is life, and some functions like the lymphatic system rely on it entirely.
Listen to Your Body
You must exercise as you age, even more than you did in your youth. That said, all movement is not equal. To reduce risk of injury, neck exercises for seniors must be safe to be effective. The following list proposes gentle yet tremendously effective exercises that will improve your posture and rid you of neck pain sooner than you would think possible. All it takes is dedication and a respect of your limits. Do not force any exercises. You can build up to where you want to be, but pushing yourself too far, too fast, risks putting you back further than if you hadn’t started exercising at all. Make sure to consult your doctor before beginning.
If you have a history of injuring yourself while exercising, look into isometric training. From the Greek isometria, meaning equal (-isos) measure (-metria), an exercise is “isometric” when it maintains the length of the muscle being worked on. This means that the joint stays virtually immobile, as does the rest of the body. You are not adding extra weight to the equation; rather, you stimulate the muscle in a seemingly static position. Unseen to the naked eye, minute movement is still happening under the surface. You are essentially working against yourself and gravity by contracting your muscles. Safe yet effective, isometric exercises are ideal for those who cannot move freely without chancing injury.
With a propensity for breaking bones, those who suffer from osteoporosis are especially well-suited to this type of workout. The exercises you will find are mostly isometric in that they do not call for added weight or external force. Cardinal Points is a good beginner’s exercise.
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF)
For increased range of motion, there is a flexibility technique you can safely adopt. While it is usually done with the help of a therapist or partner, Neck Hammocks give you the autonomy to accomplish PNF stretching. The way it works is simple. To reverse a hunched back:
- Place your head in the Hammock.
- Tuck your chin in slightly, following the position that the Hammock naturally places you in.
- Gently push into the Hammock for 3 seconds.
- Release and relax deeper into the position.
- Repeat 3 times.
By deliberately contracting your muscle, you are shepherding blood to your neck muscles to lubricate the stretch. You can thus go further in your stretches after bringing blood to muscles you are working on.
Ask your physical therapist about adding Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) to your routine. You may be surprised that you are already utilizing this intelligent practice, especially in stretching the back of your legs, or hamstrings.
While the following are simple exercises that alleviate pressure around the neck, they often require moving the whole body and can be instrumental in increasing range of motion, releasing neck and shoulder tension, neck strain and encourage good posture.
In yoga, this is called Mountain Pose.
- Think Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. Stand tall, imagining a string is pulling you up to the ceiling.
- Tuck your chin in, arms relaxed by your sides.
- Embody the position your Neck Hammock puts you in when you are lying on your back.
- Breathe as you stand in a neutral position for your spine.
- Take a look at a mirror to study your positioning. Better yet, have a loved one snap a photo of you from the side. This way, you will see how you need to reposition yourself.
This exercise you can do while waiting for the bus, or even watching TV. Just remember not to dip your head too forward if the TV is lower than your eye-line.
Assume the position you now know as Standing Tall.
- Open your hands wide.
- Reach your arms up, like the Vitruvian Man would, drawing a circle on your way up, all the way over your head.
- If you feel pain as you raise your arms, breathe into it. You do not want any unbearable pain, but the only way out is through when it comes to frozen shoulders. Be gentle and patient with yourself.
- Once your arms are extended over your head, turn the palms to each other and clap them together.
- Reverse the motion, lowering your arms back to your sides. Remember to keep your elbows straight the whole time. Repeat.
Rolling your shoulders up to your ears and back down is a great way to warm up the area before going into more physically demanding exercises. You can do it standing or seated.
- In a seated position, place your palms on your thighs.
- Raise your shoulders to the front of the room, to your ears, to the back of the room, and down into the ground, towards your hips.
- Repeat with the four directions in mind.
- Smooth out the motion, but do not forget to reach each point of the quadrant.
Touch Your Toes
If you feel comfortable leaning forward to touch your toes without losing your balance, do so. Otherwise:
- In a seated position, relax your chin into your chest.
- Walk your hands along your thighs over your knees.
- Keep going all the way to your feet. If you can, relax your chest onto your legs. Breathe deeply and settle into the position, inhale and exhale as you stretch deeper.
- Gently move your head from side to side, shaking “no,” in the upside-down pose.
- Bring your head back to center. Walk your hands to one side, then the other, to get a deeper stretch.
- Roll up slowly, pushing your arms into your thighs as you roll up.
The tight neck muscles that are borne of poor posture apply undue pressure on the nerves that run through the cervical spinal area. This causes intense, radiating pain throughout your shoulders and arms. To alleviate the pain, stimulate your fingers with rhythmic movements like you would to play a keyboard. Do it as fast as you’d like, as long as each finger has its day in court.
- Extend your arms like you would to hitchhike.
- Stretch out the other fingers like you would your thumbs.
- Play the invisible piano with as much vigor as you can muster.
Poor posture forces the body to compromise. Tight, weak muscles in parts you would think have nothing to do with your neck directly contribute to the problem. Your feet may seem like the farthest possible area, but they are directly correlated with your neck.
Like fingers, toes are another extremity to consider. In fact, toes should have the same dexterity as fingers! The only difference is that they’ve been forced into shoes since childhood and have, you guessed it, atrophied with time. Nerves run all the way into your toes. In the same way that your atrophied neck muscles press onto the nerves in the upper back, atrophied foot muscles will squish nerves in your feet and toes, resulting in numbness and pain.
Wiggle your toes to stimulate blood flow to your feet. This is very difficult to do when you are wearing shoes, even sneakers, so go barefoot for the length of the exercise. If you can manage to amble around barefoot all the time, do.
Take a bunch of pencils and throw them onto the floor. Your task is now to pick each one up using your feet and toes only. If pencils are too thin for you at this time, choose thicker objects like crayons or markers. Your goal should be to pick them up, but you’re still getting the workout you need even if you keep dropping them. The point is to stimulate not only the muscles, but also your brain. Remember to not get hard on yourself. You’re not helping anyone by assuming any kind of shame. You’re doing a phenomenal job. Keep your chin up (but not too much out of alignment, if you catch the drift).
This exercise combines isometric training and PNF to relieve neck pain.
- Assume the Standing Tall position we described earlier.
- Bring your right palm to your face and push into it like you would to turn your head. Do so gently for 3 seconds, repeat 3 times.
- Release the position and relax.
- Bring your left palm and do the same to that side. You’ve now accomplished both East and West directions.
- Next up are North and South. Ball up your hand as a fist and place it under your tucked chin. Push your chin gently into your fist for 3 seconds, 3 times.
- Release the position and relax.
- Place your palm up to rest gently on top of your head. Push into your hand for 3 seconds, 3 times. You should feel taller when you’re done.
Working out may sound like a daunting task, but it is the way to relieve pain. The trick is to find exercises that best suit your fitness level, and to do them with an intelligent attitude. A little goes a long way!
- Aging backwards by Miranda Esmonde-White
- Forever Painless by Miranda Esmonde White
- The Yoga Bible by Christina Brown