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Better posture isn’t the answer - it's a symptom of something else
The pandemic, and working from home, has led to us spending long hours in awkward body positions, typically resulting in hunching our shoulders forward. NYC dentist Tammy Chen, says “I’ve seen more tooth fractures in the last six weeks than in the previous six years".
It’s not just fractures but jaw pain, tooth sensitivity, achiness in the cheeks and migraines — sound familiar?
The simple, universal cure is an appeal to "better posture". However, this is not the cure, as "better posture" is often a prescription for the wrong disease.
In this post, I'll explain what the real cause it, and cures that work. This will not necessarily get you sitting up in a textbook posture, but it should cure you from damaging your teeth.
Is the cure really better posture? Really?
It turns out that slumping at the desk leads to us unconsciously damaging our teeth. That's because the neck is connected to the jawbone is connected to the skull. Stress from poor posture, translated through those connections, is a cause of tooth-fracturing grinding during the night.
Even worse! You may even be clenching and grinding during the day, without being conscious of it.
The cure is universally said to be "better posture" i.e. to be aware of your posture, to take breaks and to "sit up straight".
The problem of allowing our heads to slump forward has name - Forward Head Posture (FHP). It has a name because it is a common problem associated with many adverse outcomes for our health. For example:
The typical ergonomic tips "to improve posture while sitting" are not going to help you. Perhaps you have already discovered this fact?
For example, this is a typical set of "better posture" suggestions:
What happens when we apply "better posture"?
What happens when you apply this technique, or to be more precise, what happens 5 minutes after you diligently set yourself up following these tips?
It's not just you.
The fundamental basis of the advice is flawed. The problem is not your posture. The problem is that you do not have the muscular strength and endurance to maintain a comfortable posture for any reasonable length of time.
In order to maintain a comfortable and non-aggravating posture for longer you need to do strengthening exercises as the first priority. No "amount" of good posture is of any benefit if you cannot sustain it in a natural relaxed unconscious way.
For example, Harvard Health reported on a study which found that strength training relieved chronic neck pain in a group of women participants. The type of strengthening used in the study is directly related to that necessary to improve your postural strength and endurance.
Five exercises to strengthen your shoulders and neck
Here are five exercises to increase the strength and endurance of the muscles necessary to minimise FHP. The foundation exercise is dumbbell shrugs. If you don’t have light dumbbells (3 to 4 kg) then use a can of baked beans or a packet of rice in each hand.
1. Dumbbell shrugs
Stand straight with your feet shoulder-width apart and your knees slightly bent. Hold a weight in each hand, and allow your arms to hang down at your sides, with your palms facing your body. Shrug your shoulders upward and slightly backward, contracting the upper trapezius muscle, hold for one count, and lower.
2. Upright row
Stand straight with your feet shoulder-width apart. Hold the weights down in front of your thighs, with your palms facing your body. Slowly bring the weights straight up, as if you were zipping up a jacket. Slowly lower the weights to their original position.
3. Lateral raise
Stand straight with your feet shoulder-width apart and your knees slightly bent. Lift your arms up to the sides until they are parallel with the floor. Your elbows should be slightly bent. Slowly lower your arms.
4. Prone Rows
Lie on your stomach with your arms dangling off the side of the bed (try angling your body so your head is facing the corner of your bed). Use a pillow under your stomach for comfort.
Begin by pulling arms back while bending elbows and squeezing shoulders blades together then slowly return to starting position.
Don't lift your head up while pulling arms back. Repeat 20 times. No weights needed.
Do the above exercises every second day, or three days a week - whatever suits your schedule. Do three of the five exercises each time, for three sets of eight to 12 repetitions (each set lasting 25 to 35 seconds) for each exercise. As you can gradually increase the weight load, aiming to double in 3 months.
5. Neck tucks
This is the classic strengthening exercise for FHP recommended by physiotherapists. Stand with your spine up against a door jamb and feet out about a finger length from the bottom of the door jamb.
Chin tucks can be done five to seven times throughout the day, even while walking as I do. It's most helpful to start doing this stretch as soon as your neck and shoulder blades first begin to hurt.
Finally, while building strength is the key objective it is also very helpful to regularly realign your shoulder and neck during the day. The Wall Angel is an effective stretch for this purpose.
Wall Angel stretch
Stand with your back against a flat wall with your feet about one handwidth from the base. Maintain a slight bend in your knees. Your glutes, spine and head should all be against the wall.
Bring your arms up with elbows bent so your upper arms are parallel to the floor, then, squeeze your shoulder blades together, forming a letter “W” (since your elbows will naturally drop a little). Hold for 6 seconds.
Next, straighten your elbows to raise your arms up to form the letter “Y.” Make sure not to shrug your shoulders to your ears. Repeat this 10 times, starting at “W,” holding for 3 seconds and then raising your arms into a “Y.”
Do 2-3 sets when you have time, otherwise four or five during the day is great.
Moving more will result in less grinding of teeth
Doing these exercises regularly will improve the strength and endurance of the muscles used to hold you in a good comfortable posture for longer, without hunching forward. This will reduce stress that would otherwise be transferred to your temporomandibular joint, which connects the jawbone to the skull, and leads to teeth grinding and damage.
A small amount of regular easy exercise will save you some hefty dental bills. Not to mention that you will feel taller, stronger, have fewer headaches, and breath more easily as you work.
And remember, more than "good posture" regular moving keeps us healthy. When we move the body releases a nutrient-rich fluid into our joints which helps keep them lubricated and healthy. Change your sitting posture regularly, there is no one best posture which you should hold for a long time.
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Since I was diagnosed at 50 with Type 2 diabetes I've been learning how to do bone-building fitness training which lowers my age. You can too. It's your choice. Walter