Neck Pain and Shoulder Alignment

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Neck and Shoulder Alignment Intro

Computer worker diagram shows desk height, hip and knee angles and more.
Desk height should be level with your comfortable elbows. Andy Zito/Illustration Works/Getty Images

Neck pain and shoulder alignment quite often go together. 

In the 21st century, most of us spend a lot of time at a computer, or otherwise functioning in a sitting position, where gravity acts on our structures in an often less than kind way.  Not only can sitting put pressure on your low back, but it may affect your upper back, as well.

How can you effectively deal with this? Well, knowledge is power. 

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Kyphosis and Forward Head Posture

Kyphosis and forward head posture at the computer.
Kyphosis and forward head posture at the computer. Andrey Popov

Gravity is a force with the potential to turn you into a hunchback.  Technically called kyphosis, this is the posture where your chest starts (or continues) to sink, your arms at the shoulder joint roll inward, and your upper back rounds over. 

What’s worse, because the head is brought down when the spine rounds (due to the fact that they’re connected,) your gaze may be re-positioned as well. Then, to pay attention to what you’re doing – i.e., to see your computer screen or watch the road as you drive, etc., you’ll likely pick up your head so that your eyes are once again level with the horizon.

Picking up your head in this way is a quick fix many people do without even realizing it.  The problem is that the alignment (of head, neck, shoulders and upper body) that results is neither balanced nor ideal.  Instead, you’re likely tightening neck and shoulder muscles unnecessarily and in so doing, bringing on a new problem called forward head posture.

Related: Spinal Curves 

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Strengthen and Stretch your Upper Body Muscles

Strong pec and ab muscles.
Strong pec and ab muscles. MariaiC

Strengthening and stretching key muscles on both sides of your upper body: Pec minor, rhomboids, latissimus dorsi, back extensor muscles and even your upper abs can go a long way toward preventing this posture cascade. 

The reason is that muscles (in general) are situated around the joints they power, and they often work in pairs which are called, respectively, agonists, or prime movers, and antagonists. Agonists and antagonists are designed to work together to provide both movement and stability to their respective joints - as well as regionally. The location of these opposing pairs of muscles tend to face one another around the joint.

But when one of the muscles in the pair gets tight, it may take you out of alignment, making you vulnerable to problems such as kyphosis and forward head posture. A good posture exercise program may help you restore lost postural balance by developing both strength and flexibility – so that one does not over or underpower any of the others.

At the shoulder, the pec minor muscle rolls the shoulder joint in.  One end of this muscle attaches onto a bony process emanating from the shoulder blade.  From there, the pec minor muscle angles down diagonally, and branches out into finger like shapes that attach on a few ribs in front.  When the pec minor contracts, it brings the ends (at the coracoid process and the bottoms of the 3 finger like shapes that attach to ribs) towards one another, and this helps to secure the shoulder blade to the back of the ribs.  But too much muscle tension in this muscle may result in the shoulder joint rolling down and in, as well as contribute to a sunken chest and kyphosis.

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Are You a Computer Hunchback?

Even kids are subject to the force of gravity.
Even kids are subject to the force of gravity. Paha_L

The quintessential example of this, of course, is the computer hunchback position (called postural kyphosis.)  In this type of abnormal - but prevalent posture, over-tight pecs at the front of the shoulder bring it down and in as discussed above.  This in turn, may overstretch and/or weaken your upper back muscles, and cause them to lose their tone.  When that happens, you may lose some support for your posture and/or develop or increase rounding in your upper back.

Here are a few exercises to get you started reversing upper body misalignments:

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