In an ideal world, you’d sit up at your desk with perfect posture all day long and you never dare to bend your head to look down at your phone. But, alas, in this imperfect reality, everyone slouches and everyone stares down at screens — which is why so many folks have forward head posture, also known as FHP.
To picture FHP, imagine craning your neck to look closer at your laptop. “Forward head posture, also referred to as ‘anterior head carriage,’ is categorized by the rounding forward of the shoulders and upper back and increased protrusion of the head when sitting or standing,” says Ben Gertzog, PT, DPT, the regional director of physical therapy at SportsMed Physical Therapy.
Your head weighs about 10 pounds, so when you let it hang forward like this, it puts an immense amount of pressure on the vertebrae and discs of your spine. “To compensate for this new posture, muscles in the neck, chest, and [shoulders] start to adaptively shorten while they are stuck in that position,” Gertzog tells Bustle. Over time, the muscles of the back get overstretched and weak, he explains, making it difficult to maintain good posture.
The two main causes of FHP are chronic dependence on technology — ever heard of tech neck? — and sitting with poor posture, as you might do at work. And since pretty much everyone uses a phone and/or sits for long periods of time each day, Gertzog says it’s likely the majority of the population experiences forward head posture to some degree. Read on for signs you’re among them along with tips on how to fix forward head posture.
Do You Have Forward Head Posture?
It’s helpful to have an idea of what good posture looks like. “If you look at someone from the side, the neck and lower back should each look like a ‘C’ and the mid-back like a backwards ‘C’,” says Dr. Adam Colandrea, DC, a chiropractor and regional director of chiropractic at SportsMed Physical Therapy. “This allows the spine to transmit and absorb force more safely, versus if the vertebrae were stacked straight up and down. With forward head posture, this alignment is altered, which can absolutely place excess pressure on the spine and discs.”
While it may be a good idea to go to a physical therapist or chiropractor to find out if you have forward head posture, you can start with a self-assessment at home. “Have someone take a picture of you standing from the side,” suggests Colandrea. Then check to see how your body lines up. You might have FHP if your ear is further forward than your shoulder, as that’s a sign your neck and head have shifted. You might also notice that your shoulders and back appear rounded, or that your chin juts forward.
Another clue is if you experience neurological symptoms like headaches or numbness and tingling in your arms or hands, says Colandrea. Other side effects include stiffness or pain in the neck, shoulders, and mid to upper back.
If any of these issues sound familiar, make having a better posture one of your top priorities. According to Gertzog, untreated FHP causes muscle fatigue, excessive disc degeneration, and then numbness and pain. Other parts of the body may try to compensate for your poor posture, leading to problems in those areas as well. “This posture also causes breathing to be less efficient, potentially causing fatigue and just generally making it difficult to focus,” he says.
How To Fix Forward Head Posture
In order to correct this problematic posture, Gertzog recommends releasing the muscles that are overly tight or “stuck” in the chest and shoulders and also finding ways to strengthen the muscles that are weak in your back and core. Try these moves to help get your body back on track.
Resistance Band Pull-Aparts
- Hold a light to medium resistance band in both hands about shoulder-distance apart, palms facing down. If you don’t have a resistance band, you can use a towel and pull isometrically without movement.
- Reach your arms out straight in front of you at shoulder height. There should be slight tension in the band.
- On an exhale, pull the two ends of the resistance band apart, finishing somewhere between a ‘V’ shape in front of you and straight out to the sides, depending on the tension of the band.
- Slowly resist back to start.
- Complete 10 reps 3 times.
Doorway Chest Stretch
- Stand facing an open doorway.
- Place one foot in the middle of the doorway while your other foot steps back.
- Place one hand on the door frame.
- Slightly turn away from this arm, feeling a stretch in your chest and shoulders.
- Hold for 5 to 10 breaths before switching sides.
Colandrea says this move will help “teach” your head and neck to stay in proper alignment by improving muscle strength.
- Sit tall in a chair.
- Imagine the top of your head is being pulled up to the ceiling.
- From this position, create a double chin by tucking your chin back into your neck, exerting about 30% effort.
- Hold for 5 seconds while you breathe.
- Do 10 reps two times a day.
According to Colandrea, this type of deep breathing will help you relax so the muscles of your core can do their job to maintain good posture.
- Sit comfortably in a supportive chair with your feet on the floor.
- Place one hand on your belly and one on your chest.
- Engage your core slightly on an exhale.
- As you breathe in through your nose, try to expand your ribcage and belly three-dimensionally into your hand, lower back, and up and downward.
- Aim for 60% of your maximum breath so you can keep your upper chest and neck relaxed. (The hand on your upper chest should remain still.)
- Exhale slowly through your nose or mouth.
- Do 5 slow deep breaths several times throughout the day.
Set Up Your Desk
Colandrea also recommends customizing your workspace, if possible, so that it’s set up in a back-friendly way.
- Raise your monitor or use a laptop stand so that your computer screen is at eye level.
- Adjust your desk and keyboard so that it’s at a height and distance where your arms can relax by your sides, elbows bent 90 degrees. (You don’t want to reach forward to use your keyboard.)
- If possible, use a standing desk off and on throughout the day so that you spend less time slouching in a chair.
Pick Up Good Posture Habits
Of course, one of the best things you can do is pay attention to your posture and correct it throughout the day, says Gertzog, who recommends the following tips:
- If you catch yourself slouching when standing or sitting, think about pulling your shoulder blades back and down.
- If you tend to lounge in your desk chair, engage your core muscles to hold yourself upright.
- Take breaks at work and get up throughout the day so you aren’t stuck in the same posture.
- Add in different types of movement, like short walks or quick stretches, whenever you can.
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Dr. Adam Colandrea, DC, chiropractor and regional director of chiropractic at SportsMed Physical Therapy