Forward Head Posture, Neck Pain and Bad Breath

forward head postureForward head posture is a common postural misalignment syndrome. It is caused by a few things: muscle weakness, repetitive motion, and a lack of body awareness. Muscular weakness comes from both lack of proper exercise and repetitive motion. Due to our unconsciously “forward-driven lifestyles,” many people hold a lot of tension in their upper body. Our arms are held for too long in front of our body when we work at the computer, we grip the steering wheel too tightly as we drive through highway war zones, and constantly thinking of what to do next keeps our heads out of alignment with the neck, in front of our shoulders. The most immediate action we can take to ease the pain of repetitive motion is to learn about workplace ergonomics.

Repetitive motion is not the only factor which causes forward head posture; continuous sitting and lack of physical exercise is also a factor. These days, people sit for hours in isometrically contracted postures, working, playing on the computer, or watching television, and most of them without any other physical activity. And even though the muscles are not moving, they are still contracting, which means they are still working and burning fuel. When muscles burn fuel, waste products accumulate and cause irritation. These chemical irritants also alter the muscles’ resting length, something which causes the connective tissue supporting the muscle to lose its suppleness. When connective tissue loses its suppleness, it starts to harden.  And over time, all of this only adds to the slumping posture.  A slumped posture causes structural misalignments in the body that go far beyond the neck.

What is Good Posture?

Before we delve into the myriad effects of bad posture, let’s first look at good posture. The word posture comes from the Latin verb ponere, which means “to put or place”.  And according to Webster’s New World Dictionary, posture refers to “the carriage of the body as a whole, the attitude of the body.”  What we normally refer to as “ideal posture” is actually called “neutral posture”.  Neutral posture is the position of our body when our joints are stacked and our spine is aligned and not twisted.  Proper alignment means that our body segments – the head, trunk, and lower extremities – are in the positions which require the least amount of energy to sustain, and therefore, put the least amount of stress on our tissues. Good posture optimizes breathing and the circulation of our bodily fluids. You can easily learn good posture through a simple online course and benefit from it immediately.

In proper alignment, our heads are positioned directly between our shoulders, in alignment with the spine. Our spine should have three natural curves, which look like an “S” when viewed from the side. The natural curvature of our spine helps it to evenly support our body weight.

The Effects of Forward Head Posture

For now, let’s return to the image of good posture and the natural S-curve of the spine. From that image of good posture, imagine a heavy head drifting forward.  You can even try doing this with your head right now.  The further out it gets the more your head drops down, increasing the curve in your upper back and flattening the curve of your lower back.  At the same time, your shoulders start to roll forward, shortening the muscles of your chest and causing you to slump even more.  This collapses your abdominals, and shortens the muscles in between your ribs.

The image is not pretty, aesthetically or anatomically. Furthermore, this terrible posture causes pain, poor circulation, and, believe it or not, it even causes bad breath.

Forward Head Posture and Bad Breath

Okay, so the bad breath comment was really a play on words just to get your attention, but here’s the relationship between your posture and your breath.  People make the common assumption that they know how to breathe, but in reality, a lot of people do not know how to breathe. Basic breathing occurs either costally (chest) or diaphragmatically (belly). Costal breathing physiologically engages the body’s fight or flight response.  Diaphragmatic breathing engages the rest and digest response, inducing a state of overall calm in the mind/body.  When you breathe deeply into the belly, it should extend, the breath should rise with the chest expanding, as the rib cage is lifted, making room for the lungs to fill with oxygen.  Some neck muscles aid that lifting process, and then can only do that effectively if they are not stressed with the weight of your head.

Now imagine poor posture and its effects on your belly breathing.  Because of the domino effect of forward head posture, your torso is essentially collapsed on itself, something which effects your ability to take in a full breath.  In addition, when both your abdominal and rib cage muscles are contracted, your lungs do not have the room to fully expand – and not only that –

forward head posture results in loss of vital capacity of the lungs by as much as 30 percent. This shortness of breath can lead to heart and blood vascular disease. The entire gastrointestinal system is affected; particularly the large intestine. Loss of good bowel peristaltic function and evacuation is a common effect of forward head posture.

Rene Cailliet, MD

You can improve your posture, cardio-vascular and digestive system right now by simply learning how to breathe better.

Pain Associated with Forward Head Posture

The first and most obvious effect of forward head posture is neck pain. The muscles of our neck are structured to support your head when it is in alignment with your shoulders.  The further your head moves out of alignment, the more stress it creates on your spine and neck muscles.  As a matter of fact, “for every inch of forward head posture, it can increase the weight of the head on the spine by an additional 10 pounds” (Physiology of Joints).

Forward head postures shifts your center of gravity, causing a domino effect in the body. When your head moves forward, the whole body compensates for the extra load on your neck muscles, which again, are not structured to support the weight of the head when it’s not sitting in between your shoulders.  So what happens?  Your upper body drifts backward and your hips tilt forward, causing pain not only in the head, neck and shoulders, but also in the mid and lower back.  When your neck muscles are overworked, they become taut and riddled with trigger points, which can cause satellite pain in the chest, the shoulder, both front and back, and down the arm and into the hand.  Satellite pain in the chest, shoulder, and arm can mimic the pain of the onset of a heart-attack.  That same satellite pain in the arm can travel down into the wrist and fingers mimicking carpal-tunnel syndrome.  You would not believe how many people have unnecessary surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome trying to fix a problem that is actually coming from their neck.

Good posture is a combination of muscle strength and body awareness. You cannot wrench or force your head and neck back into alignment. You have to learn to be more aware of your body and also work to strengthen it.  One of the best ways to do both of these is to learn some basic yoga postures to relieve neck pain. Doing yoga not only strengthens and stretches your neck and back muscles, but it also teaches you how to breathe properly and stay connected to your body, all of which will serve to get your head back on your shoulders where it belongs.