Hunchback nation

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Were I a gambling man, I'd bet that we will see an epidemic of dowager's hump over the next 10 years -- more and more men and women with a pronounced forward curve of the upper spine. The cause won't be osteoporosis but cumulative deterioration of soft tissues caused by years of computer work. Chiropractic and massage, whatever temporary relief they may bring from pain, won't prevent or reverse the damage, because they don't address the cause.

TulipGirl's entry about computer exercises brought back to mind something I've been meaning to write about for some time. A little over a year ago I had a pain in the neck, aches in my shoulders, which sounded like a bowl of Rice Krispies when I moved, headaches (especially behind the left eye), and occasional pain down the left arm. An MRI showed a bulging disc, probably impinging on a nerve root, and I was prescribed a course of physical therapy to help keep the disc in place and to stabilize my upper spine to avoid further problems.

I came into therapy believing that my shoulder muscles were too tight and needed to be relaxed, but the real problem was that they weren't tight and toned enough. The physical therapist explained that the problems had to do with a loss of the tone and stability of my upper back and shoulder muscles and the overstretching of back ligaments, all the result of spending far too much time with head craned forward and shoulders rolled inward, the natural result of working on something in front of you and below your line of sight.

(I came under conviction and stopped writing this entry, as I realized that the screen for this computer was well below my line of sight. The screen is now 12 inches higher and with my head up and shoulders back, I can look straight at the screen.)

The therapy involved some exercises, like neck retraction, which are just to pull things back into line and reestablish good posture -- things that will provide immediate relief for an ache that has just started. Other exercises involved elastic tubing or weights to provide a small amount of resistance, aimed at strengthening the upper back muscles so that everything will get back in alignment and stay that way.

It's an indication of how out of condition those muscles are that it doesn't take much resistance to give you a workout. Give this a try: Get a one-pound can of something from your pantry, or a one-pound hand weight if you've got it. Lie on your side, with a pillow under your head to keep it lined up. Take the weight in your free hand, palm down, and keeping your elbow tucked into your side, try to lift the can as far as you're able. With your elbow tucked in, you're doing a sort of rotating movement upward, rather than a straight lifting movement. Repeat that 10 times in a row, if you can -- it may be too difficult. (Standard disclaimer: Check with your health-care provider before you do this or any other exercise.)

I've always been skeptical of chiropractic as a long-term solution to back pain. Popping everything back into place is well and good in the short term, but how did everything get out of place to begin with, and how do you keep it in place once you've popped it back? Physical therapy provided the answer -- rebuild muscle tone through exercise and discipline yourself to maintain good posture.

The exercises TulipGirl writes about are very similar to those I was prescribed. It's also very important to arrange your workstation so that neck and elbows and wrists are in a neutral position. Sleep matters, too -- the tireder I am, the harder it is to maintain good posture. I slump, things get out of line, and the aches return. Well-toned muscles should do better at helping maintain posture even when I'm tired.

As people tend to do, when the pain went away I stopped taking time for exercise with weights and eventually stopped the little desk exercises, too. That was foolish. Thanks to TulipGirl for the reminder to renew the habits that will help keep me pain-free and hump-free for years to come.


TulipGirl said:

Do you have any other recommended resources for DIY posture / computer health exercises?

TulipGirl, all I have are a bunch of xeroxed sheets of exercises from the physical therapist. I haven't looked to see if any of them are online. Exercise 1 and Exercise 6 from your entry are two of the three I was told to do frequently (at least hourly) at my desk. The third was a pectoral stretch -- arms straight, hands clasped behind the back, then raise and hold for 30 seconds, three times (I think). (Insert usual exercise disclaimer.) The rest of my exercises involved small weights or surgical tubing, and they were more for rehab than for prevention, I believe.

Maybe in time we develop a dowagers hump, but right now I am noticing that my saddle bags are multiplying. I am trying to spend less time at the computer and more time walking and exercising.
It would be great if there was a site on the net showing those of us who spend a lot of time at the computer exercises we can do to stay in better shape. Do you know if there is anything out there?

Mountain Mama, I think you hit on it in your comment -- more time walking and exercising, which would help with posture as well as weight control. For me, it wasn't exercise as much as the Atkins diet that helped me get my weight under control, and I am keeping it off (going on 18 months now) by avoiding carbs in isolation -- more like the South Beach diet. I avoid individual foods or combinations of foods with a high glycemic load, foods which cause blood sugar peaks and valleys, encourage the body to store fat, and ultimately leave me hungrier than when I ate them. I generally stay away from starchy and sugary foods, particularly if I'm not having any protein or fiber at the same time.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on February 28, 2005 9:25 PM.

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