When you have been sitting at a computer all day you have to deal with compression problems at both the bottom of the spine and at the cervico-thoracic junction; where your neck joins your shoulders.
Compression of the base is straightforward. The bricks at the bottom of the stack take more weight and you slowly leach fluid from the intervertebral discs which are the pillows between the vertebrae. As you sit, day in day out, your discs gradually become drier and thinner, and then cannot pull apart and puff up, even when you're not sitting. Your low back gradually becomes stiffer and less forgiving, and in this brittle state it is much easier to hurt through jolting or jarring. From these inauspicious beginnings you can go on to develop years of back trouble.
Trapezius is the bulky muscle covering the back of the neck and the cross-bar of your shoulders. Its job is to hitch up your shoulders - so your arms clear the keyboard - and control the forward angulation of your neck. Peering at a computer screen for hours invokes chronic over-activity of trapezius.
Ideally, your head should sitting squarely on your shoulders and require minimal muscle effort to hold it there. But if it is poised long-term in front of the line of gravity the trapezius muscles either side of your neck must work like horses' reins to hold the head from drooping.
Over-activity of trapezius compresses the spinal segments of cervico-thoracic junction and causes a beefy hump to develop at the top of the back. This is called a dowager's hump. Quite apart from the discomfort of the low-grade muscle clench, the neck and upper thorax become painful from the chronic compression. Over time, neck movements become stiff, the upper body becomes more stooped, the shoulders lose mobility as the pectoral muscles adaptively shorten and the elbows develop flexion contractures.
The upper trapezius muscles most affected when sitting at a computer
Waste products from trapezius over-activity stimulate nerve endings and cause pain in the muscle. You can also develop hard cordy strands, particularly at the base of the neck and the back of the neck-shoulder angle. These are thought to be 'fibrotic' changes, where muscle fibres clump together and become less contractile after long periods of over-activity.
The bad of computer posture
The ideal of computer posture
In dealing with on-going ill-effects of 'computer posture', you must seek out a good ergonomic set-up. This means getting your spine in an 'S' bend with your neck relaxed and your muscles minimally active.
Keeping a 'S' bend usually requires using a cushion in the small of your back to let go and relax against. This is important. The pillow should be firm enough to allow you to relax while bulky enough to keep your lumbar hollow. You chair-and-desk set up should put your forearms at the correct height, with your elbows slightly more open than a right-angle.
Squatting is the universal panacea. At first the knees will complain but unless you have frank knee problems, it is good for them too
Ideally, at the end of every day you should lie backwards over a BackBlock.
This puts you in the classic anti-sitting posture and it not only stretches all the shortened ligaments at the front of the hips and down the front of the spine (which keep you bowed over), but prises open the lower spinal segments from the front and drags much needed fluid back into the lumbar discs.
You can also use the BackBlock for the upper end of your spine. Used here, it not only winches your shoulders back and takes you out of a typical computer person's hunched, round-shouldered look, it also jacks your whole upper body back so that it stacks more effortlessly over its narrow base (the pelvis). Remember that a lot of low back problems become chronic through the chronic postural strain of the heavy upper torso being carried too far forward, in front of the line of gravity.
If you have been using a computer for years and are incredibly stiff, you may have to preface any form of BackBlock with simply lying flat on your (hunched) back on the floor and going through the same actions. Believe it or not, something as simple as this is an incredibly effective first-base exercise.
Read more about Sarah's comprehensive Treatment For Back Pain video on how to use the BackBlock to relieve spinal compression caused by sitting at a computer.
This is a lovely way to stretch the sciatic nerve and to open out arms trapped to the side of your chest, like frozen chicken's wings
Find a clear space of uncluttered floor beside a wall and on your side, put your bottom in as close as possible to the wall. Then rolling over onto your back, swing both legs up the wall and at the same time, take your arms above your head and on the floor behind you. (Before you go up, make sure your bottom is right in to the wall because you cannot get it any closer ? and thus get a good stretch of the lower back and hamstrings - once your legs are up the wall.) In this position, do not allow your knees to bend or your bottom to lift off the floor. Remain in position for 2 minutes, breathing quietly. You can also do your wide semi-circle excursions with your arms to stretch your pectoral muscles as you did using the thoracic BackBlock.
The final yoga stretch specifically targets uncomfortably tight trapezius muscles. Sitting towards the front of a chair, take both arms out in front of you, with the upper arms held parallel to the floor and both elbows bent to 90 degrees. Lift your right arm over your left and twining the forearms around each other, put both palms face to face (albeit the left one lower). In this position raise and lower your whole arm complex above and below the 90 degree mark. At a certain point in this limited range you will feel a pulling sensation along both webs of muscle at the base of your neck, extending out and around the tip of each shoulder. Raise and lower the arms for thirty seconds, then disentangle the arms and repeat with the other (left) arm uppermost. There are no specific contra-indications for this exercise but you should expect to feel discomfort across the shoulders for the next few days after first starting it.
This is an effective way of loosening the ribs where they key in to the sides of the thoracic spine
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