We are often told – by doctors, chiropractors, physical therapists, physical trainers, our parents, ourselves – we need to have “good posture.” Type posture into Google and four different definitions pop up, the first of which is “the position in which someone holds their body when standing or sitting” followed by the phrase “good posture” indicating the prevalence and common senseness of this concept. But what exactly is good posture? Generally we think good posture is standing or sitting up straight, shoulders back, and tailbone tucked slightly under so our spines are stacked. We believe that holding this pose allows for the best flow of nerve signals, energy, and circulation. We are told that this position will forever and always alleviate our neck, shoulder, and low back pain because when everything is properly aligned, what can do wrong? And this posture is great! For some things.
There, however, is an inherent problem with cultivating the understanding that good posture is one very strict pose that we are meant to hold every day. All day. Even in sleep. Sound exhausting? Your body thinks it is too. Sound familiar? It should; it is the same thing you are doing when you hold that “bad posture” your doctor, chiro, PT, etc. is warning you against. Humans are fluid, dynamic beings. Our muscles and joints are meant to be put through their full range of motion and our nerves are flexible to bend with us as we change positions. Standing in the same way we sit does us a disservice because it limits our mobility and sets us up for health problems and muscular dysfunction. (For more on the importance of mobility, click here.) Think about the way small children move through life. How many times in a day do you see them in the same position for longer than five minutes? Kids fidget, flail, and otherwise fold into new postures constantly. Because of this, children rarely complain of the muscle pains common among adults.
What’s more, there has thus far been no scientific evidence put forth that positively identifies supposed bad posture as a cause of low back pain. Some studies have suggested a correlation between neck and foot pain with commonly understood bad postures, but those positions also increase the weight born by those body parts putting more strain on the muscles. For every inch your head moves forward (forward head posture usually caused by looking down at the computer, phone, road, knitting needles, etc.), the weight of your head effectively increases by 10 pounds! So if it matters less how we sit or stand than how long we sit or stand in any given pose, what’s the point in addressing posture with chiropractic or massage therapy?
What's the Point?
Correcting your posture with therapy is not about pulling you from one position to permanently stick you in another. It is about breaking the patterns your body has developed through years of repetitious movements to give you a chance to more effortlessly move differently. It is also important to undo these patterns because the type of posture we hold most often is an indicator and a contributor to our self-esteem and overall happiness. That “good posture” position has all of those flow benefits mentioned above as well as provides optimal space for the lungs to expand upon inhalation. It also projects a sense of confidence and openness. People who are constantly in slumped postures are stifling the physical benefits, but are also more likely to be uncomfortable in their surroundings, closed to new experiences, and have low self-esteem. When you can transition from a guarded posture to a more open one, you are indicating to your nervous system that something has changed and you can adapt to this new state of being. Essentially, posture correction helps you “fake it till you make it.” This is similar to the need for people to avoid patterns of behavior they adopted when they were depressed to prevent returning to that state of mind – change the stance, change the attitude.
Role of Manual Therapy
Since it is estimated that approximately 95% of what we do in a day is controlled by our autonomic nervous system (the part of our peripheral nervous system – or anything that is not the brain or spinal cord – that controls involuntary functions such as breathing, heart rate, digestion, etc.), we are mostly operating subconsciously or on auto-pilot. Anything that we can do without conscious thought such as how many times we chew our food, which side of the bed we get up from, or how we stand, will be directed by the autonomic nervous system’s programming. This means that sheer willpower alone is will most likely not be enough to overcome our self-selected, predetermined postures as we will always revert back to what is easiest and most familiar. Massage therapy, chiropractic, and other manual therapies work with your nervous system to signal that changes are being made, making it much easier to change your postural programming over time.
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