Upper Cross Syndrome is a condition that many desk workers have. It is a postural abnormality where your upper body and head is being drawn forward due to being hunched over a desk all day. This doesn’t affect just desk workers, but anyone who is doing prolonged activities that require them to have their arms reaching out in front of them, such as with people who drive long distances, or cyclists.
Upper Cross Syndrome
The image above shows the muscles that become overly tight with this postural dysfunction, and the muscles that are weak, or inactive.
In upper cross syndrome the muscles that are overly tight tend to be muscles in the chest (pectoralis major and minor), the anterior neck muscles (SCM, or Sternocleidomastoid, and scalenes), and the upper back muscles (upper trapezius, rhomboids, levator scapula).
The weak, or inactive muscles are the deep neck flexor muscles that hold your head back, and keep it from being pulled too far forward. Also the scapular stabilizer muscles (the muscles that draw your shoulder blades toward the middle of your back and down).
If sitting in this position for prolonged periods, tension from the overly tight muscles can lead to upper back/neck pain, headaches, and decreased range of motion (as well as multiple other issues). One of the best things to do during your day is to move on a regular basis. If you sit long hours at a desk make sure that you are getting up and walking around at least once every hour for 5-10 minutes. Also, incorporating regular stretching breaks into your day is very beneficial as well. Listed below are some of my favorite exercises to give my clients when dealing with this dysfunction:
Interlock your hands behind your back, keeping your arms straight, raise them as high as you can until you feel a comfortable stretch through your chest and biceps. Keep your body in an upright position. Hold 20-30 seconds. Repeat 2-3 times.
Using a doorway, place both arms against the walls on both sides of the door, shoulders and elbows both at 90 degrees. Step through the door so that your arms are drawn back, feeling a stretch through the front of your shoulders and chest. Also, try raising or lowering your elbows to focus on stretching the pec muscle fibers at different angles, as well as doing this one arm at a time. Hold 20-30 seconds. Repeat 2-3 times.
Neck/Upper Back Stretches
Upper Trap Stretch:
Sitting in a chair, upright nice and tall, shoulders back. Reach one arm behind the back. Use the other arm to gently pull your head to the opposite side as if you are trying to bring your ear to your shoulder. Keep your chin level and head back. Once you feel a comfortable stretch, hold for 20-30 seconds. Repeat both side 2-3 times each.
levator scapula stretch:
This is a stretch more focused on the posterior side of the neck. Sitting upright nice and tall with shoulders back. Reach one arm behind your back as if you are trying to reach in between your shoulder blades. From here, rotate your head to the opposite side, then using your free hand, place it on the back of your head and pull down as if you are looking down toward your hip. Hold 20-30 seconds. Repeat both sides 2-3 times each.
Postural Strengthening Exercises
Stretching will help alleviate some of the discomfort by elongating overly tight muscles, but what about the inactive/weakened ones? In order to restore optimal alignment to the neck, shoulders and upper back, you will need to do strengthening exercises to balance everything out.
Here are two of my favorites:
Sitting in a relaxed position with head upright and shoulders back. Keeping your chin level, and eyes forward, simply draw your head back. Make sure not to dip your head down as you do this. This is strengthening your deep neck flexor muscles to help counter-balance the “forward head position” many of us have. Hold this position for about 10 seconds. Repeat 10 times.
Sitting on the edge of a chair, with your feet flat on the ground
Sitting upright, shoulders back, chest up, abdominals engaged with your arms relaxed at your sides.
Rotate your arms so the your palms face to the outside and your thumbs are pointed behind you (you should feel the external rotation at your shoulders mostly).
From here, thinking about using the muscles IN BETWEEN your shoulder blades to pinch them together and draw them down toward the middle of your back.
Remembering to breath deeply, hold this position for about 30 seconds. Repeat a couple times.
Beneficial to do this exercise multiple times throughout your day, especially if you work at a desk. These are some simple corrective exercise strategies you can use in order to give yourself some relief if you are experiencing neck and upper back pain. There are many more stretches and exercises that can help, and sometimes you may need to have a skilled massage therapist work out the tight areas because stretching just may not be enough. I only talked about the upper back and neck in this post, but as you can see, poor posture with sitting can affect your alignment from your head to toe.