Hunch Much? You Could Have Upper Crossed Syndrome
Those chronic headaches, neck pain and back problems may be caused by something you’re doing wrong — but can easily fix
Remember when your parents warned you that if you kept scowling your face would freeze that way?
They were putting you on, but something like that really can happen to your neck, chest and shoulder muscles. It’s called upper crossed syndrome and is an imbalance of the muscles in the upper part of the body that can lead to chronic neck, back and shoulder pain.
The curse of hi-tech living
Upper crossed syndrome results from spending a lot of time hunched forward over a desk, smartphone or even hobby table. In this position, certain muscles lengthen and become weak. These are the neck muscles, the rhomboids (which squeeze your shoulder blades together and stabilize your shoulders) and the serratus muscles (which help move your shoulders), explains Ray Miller, CMT, a certified massage therapist and pain relief specialist in Montclair, New Jersey.
At the same time, constant hunching shortens and tightens three other sets of muscles: the pectorals (chest muscles that help move your shoulders and shoulder blades in several directions and allow you to extend your arms), the trapezius (the muscle below the back of your neck that helps you shrug and reach up) and the levator scapula (these are attached to the first four vertebrae in your neck and help you swivel your neck, shrug and prevent your head from flopping down onto your chest when you look down).
“If you look at someone from the side, imagine an X going through their body at the shoulder,” says Miller. “One line of the X goes from the pectorals to the shoulder and upper back muscles. The other line connects the neck flexors and the rhomboids and serratus anterior in the back.”
Simply looking down at your smartphone puts 60 pounds of pressure on your neck muscles. Think about how often you’re frozen in that position while texting or playing a game or typing on your computer keyboard. It’s easy to see how that could lead to chronic pain caused by the uneven push and pull of those muscles.
Undoing the damage
You can get some relief from upper crossed syndrome with deep tissue massage therapy, but a rubdown won’t solve the problem, says Miller. You need to loosen and release the tight muscles that are tugging your upper body forward and strengthen the ones that are weak, says Miller. And once you’ve done that, you also have to change the habits that led to the muscle imbalance in the first place.
Here are some tips from Miller for doing both:
Do chin tucks. Barely moving your head, tuck your chin in. You’ll know you’re doing it right if you give yourself a double chin, Miller says. This simple exercise will stretch the muscles in the back of your neck and help prevent your head and shoulders from lurching forward. Get into the habit of doing chin tucks for two minutes at a time several times a day.
Related: The Truth About Cracking Your Neck
Hit the wall. This easy exercise helps strengthens weak chest muscles. (Bonus: It will also streamline your triceps!) Stand facing a wall with both hands pressed flat against it. You should be far enough back (about two feet) that your elbows are slightly bent. Keeping your feet flat and abdominals tight, use your arms to push your body away from and then toward the wall, as if you’re doing a push-up. Do this for two minutes at a time throughout the day.
Don’t look down. Your phone, computer or any other screen should be level with your eyes. Even if you feel funny doing it, hold your smartphone up when you’re checking emails or texts. Just don’t stay in this position for too long. Otherwise you’ll put too much pressure on your back muscles. At your desk, find the “Goldilocks spot” for computer work — not too high, not too low. You shouldn’t have to look up or down. Sit up with your back supported. You should look like an old-fashioned typist — not slumped over, not reaching your arms out and with your arms supported.
Related: How to Set Up a Feel-Good Office
Stand up. Besides wrecking your neck, shoulders and back, sitting all day can be as hazardous to your health as smoking. The hottest thing in offices today are standing desks, but if you don’t have to redecorate your office to help counter the side-effects of sitting. Set an alarm on your computer or phone to remind you to take a break every half hour or so. Get up, move around (do your chin tucks and wall push-ups).
If you’re still in pain after taking these steps, check with your doctor to make sure you haven’t developed another problem.