Nov 2013 09

Massage & 21st century posture (1)

By: Dave Wheeler

Whether it's typing at a laptop, texting, eating, reading, writing or just walking along the street, most of the time we’re looking down.  Many of us spend our days heads down.  We’ve gone from an upright species to one hunched over a desk all day.

Head down is pretty much our default position – so much so that it’s become comfortable.  Trying to walk around with our head up in an erect position feels unnatural. 

The problem is that we’re born with the same genetic code as our ancestors: our skeleton and the muscles that support it are designed to support a head that’s balanced on our neck directly over shoulders.  But 21st century living means that our heads are forward all of the time.

The average adult human head weighs around 5kg (though it can vary by a kg or so either way): that’s the equivalent of 2½ bags of sugar.  Normally the head is supported by muscles at both the back and the front of the neck, to stop it flopping around.  But to compensate for our 21st century head-forward posture, the muscles on the back of the neck have to stretch out and then work extra hard to support the head.  If you find that you’ve got neck and upper-back ache at the end of the day, this is why.

Here’s a real-world example from a guy that I treated, we’ll call him “Karl.”  Karl’s head weighs 6.2kg.  The diagram below shows Karl’s head perfectly balanced on his body, so that the muscles at the front and back of the neck are supporting that 6.2kg in exactly the way that they were designed to:


forces acting on head in neutral posture


If Karl actually stood like that, he wouldn’t have a problem – both sets of muscles, front and back, would be equally strong and the force from the weight of his head would be acting straight down, balanced on his shoulders.

But actually, Karl has the typical 21st century posture: his head is forward.  In the real world, Karl’s head is 7cm forward of where it “should” be.  The diagram below shows this – notice the muscles in red at the back of Karl’s neck and on his upper back: these muscles now have to support the whole of the weight of Karl’s head:


forces acting on levator scapulae in a head forward posture


The force now acting on the muscles at the back of Karl’s head isn’t 6.2kg but, because his head is held forward by 7cm, the force is the same as if a head that weighed 49.9kg was being supported by those muscles in the neutral position.

Now imagine what’s happening to those muscles which are being subjected to a force of nearly 50kg instead of the 6kg that they were designed for.  Not only are the muscles at the back of Karl’s head and the top of his back & shoulders being stretched out, they’re also in a constant state of tension to support the weight. In technical language, the muscles are both lengthened and hypertonic

Look again at the muscles at the front of the neck. In the first diagram, those muscles were working with the muscles at the back to balance the force of the head.  In Karl’s case, the muscles at the front of his neck aren’t being used for support at all – although they’re stretched out, they’re weak from underuse.

To sort out Karl’s sore upper shoulders and neck needs more than just a relaxing massage: he needs some remedial therapy to help him begin to reset his 21st Century posture to one that his body was designed for; he then needs some deep-tissue techniques that come from the sports massage world to help alleviate the pain in the hypertonic muscles; finally he needs some advice on exercises to help build up the strength in the muscles at the front of his neck so that the problem doesn’t keep coming back.

If you’re got a stiff neck and shoulders remedial deep tissue massage can alleviate the ache.  Call me for a chat to see if I can help.