I talk to so many people who worry about developing a “hunchback” as they age, especially if their current job has them slaving over a computer.
And with good reason.
Hunchback formation happens because of something we in the holistic movement & therapy world call “form follows function.” Essentially, form follows function means that whatever you repeatedly do will shape your posture later. In this case, the shape created over the long term is the hunchback, or more technically, kyphosis. But form follows function can and does apply to any number of posture aberrations.
We humans come into this world with a wonderful potential for aesthetic posture and movement capability – a natural balance, if you will. But as time moves on, and we learn how to navigate our environment, how to fit ourselves into the world of people and things and especially how to live in the 21st century – with all its gadgets and devices – our movement potential becomes limited.
That’s why I advocate holistic movement & therapies, as well as exercise. Engaging with these may help us restore the flexibility we had as kids. Now that we’re adults, though, we need to understand what we’re working with.
Back to kyphosis. This posture deformity can be seen from a side view of the body as a rounded upper back. Unfortunately, the deforming does not stop there. Kyphosis is almost always accompanied by a related issue called forward head posture.
When your upper back rounds over, your head is naturally brought down. Your gaze is pulled downward, as well. Problem is, you need to see directly in front of you, not down – whether to work with your computer screen, to make it through traffic or to look someone in the eye.
Because of this, you’ll likely lift up your head. In turn, this head-lifting response, which is pretty much automatic, “kinks” the back of the neck, and tightens the muscles there.
So now you can see what you need to, but your head is no longer in alignment with your neck and the rest of your spine.
The Beauty of Posture Exercise for Kyphosis and Office Related Neck Pain
Along with not so pretty posture, forward head can lead to painful muscle strain in the neck and shoulders. It may also predispose you to a musculoskeletal condition later, or make an existing one worse. Usually, the best fix for kyphosis and forward head posture is exercise and working on your alignment.
Science agrees with me. A 2017 study published in the Brazilian Journal of Physical Therapy found exercise to be a critical component of getting rid of computer-related neck, shoulder and back pain.
This means that if working at a computer is creating a hump in your mid & upper back, and dragging your head down, yes, workstation ergonomic fixes – like buying a new chair, etc. – may possibly be helpful. But movement and posture exercise will definitely be helpful. These are some really powerful pain relievers!
And a 2011 systematic review, published in the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics identified both aerobics (endurance training) and muscle strengthening as particularly good ways to reduce neck pain that occurs in the office. Emphasize endurance more than strengthening if you have a disability along with the pain, the authors advise.
Remember, kyphosis and forward head posture form slowly, which means they’ll resolve slowly, too. I’ve found that a few minutes a day can really help reduce pain and joint strain. And at least with the techniques I teach, many people find such a routine to be de-stressing, in addition to helpful for posture improvement, reducing medical risk, etc.
Let’s get started with the three most important movements for reversing or managing your computer hunchback.
A 3-Exercise Routine for Forward Head Posture and Kyphosis
Here’s a 3-exercise routine to get you started resolving your kyphosis and forward head posture. If you have pain or an existing joint or muscle condition, please speak with your doctor or physical therapist before trying any of the following exercises.
Cervical Retraction for Forward Head
- The first exercise is called cervical retraction. Cervical means neck and retraction means to bring back. With cervical retraction, the goal is to bring your head back in line with your neck. This exercise is given to nearly every forward head posture patient who sees a physical therapist.
- Sit up (comfortably) straight. Gently tuck your chin towards your neck. As you do, feel the back of your neck lengthening.
- After you’ve practiced that for a few days, you might also start aiming the area of the bottom of your nose where it meets the top of your upper lip back and up.
- Note that this direction is a diagonal – a combination of, again, back and up.
- Hold for the count of 5 and relax.
- Do 5-10 reps with good technique.
Reverse Kyphosis by Giving Your Shoulder Blades a Good Squeeze
- The second exercise strengthens your upper back muscles. These muscles, called the rhomboids, when strong, help counter the hunchback posture. This is another exercise given to nearly all physical therapy patients who see the therapist for kyphosis.
- Sit up (comfortably) straight. Squeeze your two shoulder blades together in back, towards your spine.
- Hold the squeeze for about 5 seconds and relax.
- Do 10-15 squeezes, once or twice per day.
Reverse Kyphosis and Forward Head by Stretching Your Pecs
- And finally, stretch your pec muscles. Pecs are located at the front of your chest and shoulders. They get very tight in cases of kyphosis, and are part of what keeps the deformity going. Releasing them will help you be more successful with the first two exercises.
- Sit up comfortably again.
- Interlace your fingers and put them behind your head, towards the bottom of the skull.
- Open your elbows out wide.
- As in the previous exercise, squeeze your two shoulder blades together.
- Hold the squeeze for about 5 seconds and then relax.
- Do 10-20 of these twice per day.
- NOTE: This is a very easy stretch. If you don’t feel it’s doing anything for you, please leave a comment below, and I will get you a more challenging one.
- Shariat, A., et. al. Effects of stretching exercise training and ergonomic modifications on musculoskeletal discomforts of office workers: a randomized controlled trial. Braz J Phys Ther. 2017.
- Sihawong, R., et. al., Exercise therapy for office workers with nonspecific neck pain: a systematic review. J Manipulative Physiol Ther. Jan 2011.