If you’re like me, chances are you’re sitting in front of your computer or looking down at your phone right now. Not only that, but you’re likely also slouching.
All of this slouching and looking down really messes up your posture and can cause something called upper crossed syndrome, or UCS. It happens when the muscles of your upper back, shoulders, neck, and chest become out of balance.
What’s happening is that the muscles in your upper back—your trapezius and levator scapulae—become strained. At the same time, the muscles in your chest—your pectoralis major and minor—get tight and become shortened. From the side, these muscle groups tend to form an X shape, leading to the condition’s name—upper crossed syndrome.
The main cause of UCS is poor posture, mostly caused by our use of technology, which demands that workers sit in front of a computer and that people spend hours hunched over their phones. Due to the role of prolonged screen time as a cause of UCS, it’s been dubbed iHunch. However, Upper Crossed Syndrome can also occur from long hours spent reading, watching TV, biking, driving for long periods of time, and any kind of extended work that causes you to bend, look down, slouch, or hunch over.
How do you know if you have UCS? Here are a few common signs: discomfort or tightness in your neck or shoulders; fidgeting and repositioning to get more comfortable when sitting at the computer or watching TV; pain, a stiff neck, and tight neck and shoulder muscles when driving; pain in your lower back; sore, tight, or achy shoulder blades; stiff, tight, or painful neck muscles; rounded shoulders; your head or neck is slouched forward; your spine curves inward at the neck.
Here’s the good news: upper crossed syndrome is treatable. If you let it go, it can get worse and impact your breathing, cause problems with your spine, and reduce your range of motion and function. Certainly working to improve your posture is a good place to start, but it may not be enough. Research has found that physical therapy is beneficial in helping to align your spine and improve your range of motion. A physical therapist will work with you to provide stretches and exercises to strengthen weakened muscles and relax muscles that are tight and reactive.
Typically, exercises for UCS involve opening up your chest and working to stretch and engage your back muscles. You can do this by leaning into a doorway with your elbows and hands on the door jamb or lying on a large training ball. Your physical therapist may also recommend exercises with large rubber bands, called Thera-bands, or have you work with weights.
Acupuncture and massage may also be helpful in treating UCS. Acupuncture can help relieve any pain associated with the condition, reduce inflammation, loosen muscle knots, and release trigger points. A massage therapist can work on loosening and releasing tight muscles.
It’s important to know that while UCS can be treated, it can also be prevented. One of the best ways to avoid UCS is to take care of your posture. For example:
Raise any screen you’re working with to eye level, so you’re not looking down to read it.
Practice good ergonomics. Set your chair height so that your feet can rest flat on the floor.
Take a break and stretch every hour or so when you’re sitting for a long period of time.
When you’re lying down, support your neck with a rolled towel or small pillow.
Stretch your upper back and open up your chest often each day, and do strengthening exercises for these muscles two or three times per week.
To support your posture, strengthen your core muscles—those of your abdomen, hips, butt, and lower back.
Wear good shoes that support the arches in your feet, and replace them when they become worn.
The bottom line is that UCS is an epidemic no one talks about. It can be painful, uncomfortable, and ultimately limit your ability to do the activities that you like to do. Fortunately, it can be prevented and treated—and the first place to start is with your posture.