We’ve likely all been told to “stand or sit up straight” at one time or another. While it may have seemed annoying in the moment, the advice was surely given with good intent. The thing is – posture does matter for back health.
“It’s much more than cosmetic,” explains Jennifer Zahn, M.D., a physical medicine and rehabilitation physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Denton and with Texas Health Spine Specialists, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice. “Good posture keeps the many intricate structures in the back and spine healthy by keeping them properly aligned. Correct posture and back support help reduce the incidence of back and neck pain. Back support is especially important for individuals who spend much of their day sitting in an office chair or on their feet.”
By not practicing good posture and getting adequate back support throughout the day, Zahn says the muscles of the back can become strained and put stress on the spine. “Over time, the stress of poor posture can change the anatomy of the spine, leading to the possibility of constricted blood vessels and nerves, as well as problems with the muscles, discs and joints of the back.”
Poor posture can be a major contributor to not only back pain, but also headaches, fatigue and even issues with breathing. As a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist, Zahn focuses on restoring the mobility and overall health of her patients through non-surgical spine treatment options such as physical therapy, medication and spinal injections, along with musculoskeletal management. Her conservative approach to care means surgery is usually only a consideration when necessary for improved quality of life, and minimally invasive techniques are available.
What Good Posture Looks Like
According to Zahn, good posture for back health means:
- keeping your chin parallel to the floor,
- arms at your sides with elbows straight,
- shoulders even (you can roll your shoulders up, back and then down to achieve this),
- a neutral spine (with little curvature in your lower back),
- hips even,
- knees even and pointing straight ahead, and
- body weight evenly distributed on both feet.
When sitting, Zahn adds that it’s important to practice similar positioning with chin parallel to the floor; your shoulders, hips and knees at even heights; and your knees and feet pointing straight ahead. “Ideally, it should be possible to draw a straight line from the earlobe through the shoulder, hip and knee, and all the way down to the middle of the ankle.”
How to Take Care of Your Back
To give your back the support it needs, it’s important to remember to take a break from prolonged sitting or standing. Desk jobs can be especially hard on the back because they keep the back in one position for an extended period of time resulting in poor posture and strain to the lower back.
Many people work sitting in an office chair that is not right for their body and that does not provide enough lower back support. One strategy Zahn recommends is to choose an ergonomic office chair that provides better support and that may be more comfortable than a regular chair. In addition, the spine is made for motion. So when sitting in any type of office chair for a long period of time, it is beneficial to get up, stretch and move around regularly to recharge stiff muscles.
Common posture mistakes that can lead to back problems include:
- Carrying something heavy on one side of the body
- Slouching with the shoulders hunched forward
- Cradling a phone between the neck and shoulder
- Wearing high-heeled shoes or clothes that are too tight
- Looking down too much
- Sleeping with a mattress or pillow that doesn’t provide proper back support
If you practice good habits for your posture and chronic back pain still sets in, Zahn admits that it may be time to see a physician.