The body does not lead a static existence (if you haven't figured it out yet). For every bend, twist, and reach, each movement is subtly recorded by your body so that it can adapt to the world around us. This physiological trait can be a double edged sword. It speaks to why athletes grow stronger with each repetition they complete, but it is also why repetitive movement injuries occur.
As mechanical stress is applied to the body, we take our available resource of "muscle energy" and funnel it towards the muscles assisting the motion of choice. This specializes you in that movement over time, but if the body only sees this one repeated movement eventually "muscular competency" - the ability to successfully contract a muscle on command- is lost in untrained areas. This is commonly know as a "compensation pattern", and when they occur symptoms like pain and stiffness often follow.
Why does the body compensate?
The body compensates for two main reasons that go hand in hand: strength and saving energy. When muscles stretch or tighten based on movement patterns, it helps us by giving choice "levers" of the body a mechanical advantage. We don't need to think about it, because it happens automatically. This is why injured or stressed area tend to be "stuck". The body tightens the muscles around the area in question to shorten their position and offer more strength at less energetic cost. This is the second reason our bodies prefer to adjust to our poor movement patterns; calories actually get saved! With less energy getting used to move large levers for movement, we may get a pain here or there, but overall its technically an advantage in energy savings.
Listed below are 5 postural cues that can offer great results when it comes to reducing everyday wear and tear on the body. These cues assist in limiting poor positioning allowing us to reap the benefits of existing within the space our bodies are meant to hold. All of the following movement cues in this list can be boiled down to keeping neutral posture which helps to alleviate the negative stimuli that result in compensation patterns. Each item has a clinical explanation, but you don't need to understand the deeper workings to feel better immediately by following the guidelines.
1) Feet Flat on The Floor
Keeping the full bottom of your foot attached to the floor when you are sitting is an easy postural cue that can assist with a hand full of common pains and discomforts. This is because there is a long connecting strip of soft tissue known as the Posterior Chain that connects the bottoms of the feet all the way to the scalp on the back side of your body. It is not unusual to find office workers and students sitting with their feet dangling with only their toe touching the floor. Measuring up the back of the body, the total length of space between the toes and scalp is shortened by a couple inches. This causes sensors in the muscles to "take up the slack" that is found. The shortening normally goes unnoticed until the individual goes to stand up and the now "specialized" short muscle is asked to perform as normal. Keeping feet flat on the floor can assist with: Plantar fascitis, foot cramps, leg cramps, back pain, and headaches.
Image Above: On the left side are images of the foot in a dorsiflexed position, considered to be a stretched position for the muscles of the calf. On the right the toe in plantarflexion is considered "off stretch". Long periods in either position leads to injury. Roofers are often injured in the opposite way as the students mentioned above due to overstretch in the calf.
2) Stop Crossing Your Legs
Crossing your legs for long periods can create a wide range of negative affects on the body. There are many angles that the leg can be crossed so generalizing can be difficult, but most commonly shortening occurs in the adductor muscle group, sartorius, quadratus lumborum, and deep rotators of the side being crossed over. This held posture of lateral rotation and adduction creates an environment conducive to hip and knee torque. .Although differing from body to body, anatomically neutral positioning in the lower body generally means the feet are shoulder width apart with feet and knees centered or within a couple degrees of external rotation. When sitting or laying down, holding neutral positioning can assist with: Burning pain on the inside of the leg, back pain, hip discomfort associated with tossing and turning during sleep, as well as, knee and foot pain.
3) Stop Chewing Gum Habitually/ Clenching During Stress
The masseter is the main muscle of the jaw that allows the mouth to close and it is the strongest muscle in the body relative to size. With its primary job being the chewing of food (our life source) , our physiology prioritizes the masseter giving it the capacity to get extremely tight. Because it is so close to some of the other primary muscles that flex the neck, it is not uncommon for their fibers to bind together under the influence of gratuitous chewing and grinding. Overuse of the jaw can result in: TMJ, headaches, the tendency to further grind your jaw, neck pain and weakness, and contributing to numbness and tingling down the arm, forward head positioning.
Image: Dave has chronic jaw pain after years of being a professional whatever the heck this is.
4) Keep Your Thumbs Facing Forward As You Walk
Very commonly people with shoulder injuries walk with the back of their hands facing forward. This is considered poor posture because it has the potential to shorten the position of every muscle that assists with internal rotation higher up the arm like the lats, subscapularis, and pectoralis muscles. The combination of shortening in all these internally rotating muscles creates a hunched, collapsed posture.
Keeping a neutral wrist positioning can help reduce: pain in the hand, elbow and wrist, back pain, numbness in the arm and hand, slouching shoulders.
Image: Some choose to actually hold their thumb in the upright position as well as keeping it forward. The prior is not a necessity to posture and may cause people to stare at you.
5) Let Your Knees Be Soft
Everyone has their favorite posture to survive the discomfort of standing in a line for 30 minutes at the movies. When the muscles associated with proper standing posture get weak the body finds new positions to keep the job going. One of the most common positions is locking out the knees. The temporary relief it brings comes at the cost of putting large internal torque through the hips and knees due to the sustained shortening of the medial hamstrings. As time progresses the hips will compensate more and more with a favoring of internal rotation to external rotation This secondary posture can become a primary posture, so it is best to always keep a slight bend in your knees AKA keeping your knees soft. Your feet should also be in a forward position with weight evenly distributed between across the bottom (plantar) surface.
Keeping your knees soft can reduce: gait issues, deep hip cramps, back and hip pain, and collapsed instep.
Image: An example of what you posture may look like if you commonly lock your knees.
The dynamic nature of our ever shifting bodies is one of the greatest blessings of our existence. We can sustain an injury, but not crack like a brittle piece of metal, because of our muscular adaptation abilities. It keeps us strong and efficient through the adverse conditions of life.
In the way that we are always adapting and absorbing stimuli layer by layer (our old injuries lie deep to the new ones). It is important to remember that a simple postural cue may not even be attainable for someone who has been locked in a compensation for years. This is where modalities like Neuromuscular Reprogramming/massage therapy, and functional training can help to break you out of the pattern. Once an individual is no longer locked in a compensation patter the benefits of the bodywork can be maintained through keeping good posture. If holding a new posture becomes uncomfortable, make sure to consult a professional who can make sure you are holding yourself correctly and not making things worse.
For additional information about posture check out "Desk Bound: Standing Up to A Sitting World" by Dr. Kelly Starett. For consultation on posture and to see if Neuromuscular Reprogramming or massage therapy can be an effective treatment, call Omni Massage of CT at 860-770-0954 to set up an appointment.