In a previous article I showed how to use a therapy roll to correct the upper back hunching known as a hyper-kyphosis. Another issue that tends to go hand in hand with excessive upper back curvature is Forward Head Posture. Chronically tight tissue in the front of the neck and upper chest pull the neck forward while tipping the head back in relation to the neck. With the chest collapsed and the neck tight, the opening at the top of the Thoracic region (rib cage) is tipped forward so that the neck comes out forward rather than up. Because the neck is forward the head must shift back so that one can look forward. In this position the muscles of the upper back and neck are forced to support the head rather than the support coming through the bones.
Proprioception (your sense of where you are in space) is compromised and therefore so is balance and strength. The polar axis is bent and all movement is affected. Often when people have forward head posture the base of the neck and the shoulder girdle is immobile forcing the upper half of the neck to compensate by becoming hypermobile. The juncture between the upper and lower cervical (c3-c5) become problem areas. Everything we do, it seems, tends to pull us into this position. Computers are particularly evil as the screens seem to suck people in no matter how ergonomically correct they are set up.
Some of the muscles commonly involved are shortened scalenes (front and side of neck); pectoralis minor (upper chest); levator scapula, sternocleidomastoid (side of neck); as well as the sub-occipital (back of head and top of neck) group. Also involved are the over stretched and usually sore rhomboids (between shoulder blades), trapesius, and the upper portion of the para-spinal group (along the spine).
In martial arts practice we are taught to lift the head and tuck the chin slightly. This opens the sub-occipital region and straightens the neck allowing support to come from the vertebrae rather than the musculature. This principal of sinking into the bones to find support is called ‘Sung’ in the internal martial arts. Commuters can practice this by sitting straight with the chin tucked and the head lifted then setting the rear view mirror so that you are forced to sit straight in order to see.
One way to stretch for this is to hold the chest down while jutting the chin toward the sky creating a deep stretch in the front of the neck and upper chest. Jut the chin to one side then the other and then straight up. Make sure to get the jaw involved so as to really create a good stretch. Be careful not to compress the vertebra, the movement is extended up, not back.
Another good stretch is the ‘doorway’ stretch. Step into a doorway and grab the wall to the side about shoulder high with the arm bent at the elbow and the head tipped back. Make sure to bend the arm as a straight arm may over stretch the shoulder. Rotate the body and head to the opposite direction. Repeat with the other arm. You should feel this in the upper chest. This stretch will open the shoulder and upper chest relieving the upper back and neck.
Forward head posture can be a chronically debilitating problem often leading to nerve and spinal column issues. Regular exercise, a stretching program, as well as chiropractic care and bodywork can all help. Yoga, Pilates, and internal martial arts practices are also great modalities for working with movement issues.