Have you been spending your days sitting, slouching and scrolling? This combination may be the culprit behind your tight shoulder blades, neck tension and headaches.
With years of sitting at a desk in front of your computer or phone, you may have developed a poor postural pattern called upper cross syndrome.
The Czech neurologist and physical therapist, Dr Vladimir Janda, first introduced the term upper cross syndrome in 1979 (1). Dr Janda observed that when we habitually hold poor postural patterns, the muscular imbalances that our bodies hold are predictable (1)(2).
In the upper cross syndrome (UCS) pattern, the habitual posture is a forward carriage of the head, and there is rounding of the thoracic spine (mid-back).
Tightness/overactivation of the following muscles: upper trapezius, levator, sternocleidomastoid (SCM), and pectoralis muscles is what characterises UCS.
In addition to tightness, UCS is characterised by weakness/underactivation in the deep cervical flexors, lower trapezius, and rhomboids. (Keep reading- or scroll to the bottom because I will show you an exercise below to strengthen your deep cervical flexor muscles)
According to Dr Janda, with these muscle imbalances, we observe dysfunctional movement that then leads to predictable joint restrictions and joint overload.
In UCS, there are three areas where the joints are overloaded: at the base of the skull (C0-C1), the mid to lower neck (C4-5) and the segments in between your shoulder blades (T4-5) (3).
These types of joint dysfunction can lead to:
Degeneration of the spinal joints (1)
Irritation of the nervous system (3)
Complications of the shoulder joint and rotator cuff (3)
Difficulties with breathing (3)
Postural habituation → Muscular tightness or weakness → movement dysfunction → Joint overload → Further complications
Also, both tight muscles and overloaded joints can refer signals up to the brain, which results in a headache.
So no matter how much Nurofen you take for your headaches or how heat packs you put on your shoulders, they may only act as a bandaid. We need to address your underlying issues of posture, muscle imbalances and joint dysfunction, or the headaches will keep returning.
I am going to share two of my favourite exercises to help combat upper cross syndrome.
Here are two exercises you can do during your workday while you take a break to grab a yummy healthy snack or make yourself a cup of coffee:
1. Deep neck flexor activation: Start in a seated position with your shoulders gently pulled back and down (imagine you are holding a pencil between your shoulder blades). Look straight forward. You will tuck your chin in as to resemble a double chin. Hold this position for 30 seconds. Do not allow your head to move downwards.
2. Brugger Postural Relief: Sit up straight and imagine that someone is pulling from the top of your head and your chin is tucked in. You’re going to take your arm out to the side with a slight bend in the elbows and your hand open with palms facing the ceiling. Hold this stretch for 30-60 seconds.
Check out the video for some extra tips on how to do these exercises!
I love these exercises because they are the antidote to that sitting, reclining and scrolling. They help to change your posture on a deep level so that you can get uncrossed, upright and upgraded!
The Peter Attia Podcast- Episode 152 - Michael Rintala, D.C.: Principles of Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilization (DNS)
Clinical Rehabilitation textbook. Pavel Kolar et al.