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Tension in Your Shoulders: A Reason Why, Whether at Your Desk or On A Run

by Carmen Andrews - Physiotherapist

The reason? The position of your rib-cage!

Everyone spends hours each day sitting. Let’s test how the position of your rib-cage affects you as you are sitting reading this post:

  • Sit on the edge of your chair, drop your sternum (chest-bone) as if you have been punched in the stomach, and look straight ahead as if looking at your computer. Feel the position of your shoulder blades and tension in your neck.

  • Take a normal breath in this position, and then take as deep a breath as possible by breathing into your stomach (this is a very important point!). Feel the ease or difficulty of taking an effective breath here.

  • Now imagine there is a hook at the midpoint of your sternum and a string is pulling it up, lifting your rib-cage with it. Feel the tension in your neck and shoulders, and breathe into your stomach, feeling the ease of your breath.

When under pressure, whether working or exercising, we tend to assume the ‘protective reflex forward posture’ (as well as spending more time at the computer!). In this hunched forward position your shoulder blades, which rest on the rib-cage when upright, slip up and forward as your rib-cage drops out from under them. Your shoulder blades therefore need to be held up by your muscles which attach to your neck. These muscles are not built to sustain these contractions for long periods of time. They therefore fatigue and their blood flow is restricted. You feel this as the classic discomfort and ‘knots’ in your muscles. The hunched forward position also makes it difficult for your diaphragm, your most efficient breathing muscle, to work well.

  • VARY YOUR SITTING POSITION: It’s neither possible nor good to spend your full work day in the perfect posture. Our bodies need movement and the more movement the better. While correct desk set-up and posture are helpful, it is more important to fidget and change your posture frequently.

  • SEE YOUR PHYSIO: If you can’t get into the ‘lifted’ rib-cage position comfortably and breath easily there, you may be stiff in your midback, weak in your postural muscles or unable to get your pelvis and lower back into the best position to support your rib-cage.

Physiotherapy can improve your posture and physical health. Consider how many hours you are going to spend at your desk through your career, and act to correct the position of your rib-cage and to protect your spine.

Next time, a note on something we barely think of, but which has the power to change your body – breathing.

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