Odds are you’re reading this article with your neck bent down, shoulders hunched. We all do it. The problem is, if you keep doing it, as is a habit for most of us while we work on our computers or sit perusing our phones, you’ll get stiff, and it’ll be harder and harder to straighten your spine. That can contribute to a hunched back and shoulders. So what can you do to put a halt to the hunch? Well, keep reading.
First, let’s be sure you’re not dealing with a more serious medical condition. The most severe cases are classified as hyperkyphosis, or just kyphosis, more commonly referred to as a hunchback. It’s essentially an abnormal curvature in the upper back. The version that comes to mind for most of us was made famous in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” It’s what Quasimodo likely had, and it’s called Scheuermann’s. That’s an inherited bone disease, one that’s very rare. Scoliosis can also lead to issues in the spine and shoulders. But the most common kind of hunchback comes with old age. It’s a postural hunchback, and it looks like the upper back is curved near the neck. In that case, it’s known as the dowager’s hump. That’s what we’re addressing here.
The hump can come from low bone density, lower spinal muscle density, and/or decreased back muscle strength. Bad posture can also contribute to the hump you may see in older age, and part of that comes from hunched shoulders. So, it’s important to address that.
Take a look at the purse you’re carrying. If that’s too heavy, that could lead to shoulder and back issues. You can also create problems by sitting in the wrong chair while you work or not sitting correctly in the right chair. If you’re hearing your mom in the back of your mind saying, “Sit up straight,” know that dear ole’ mom was spot on. If you didn’t hear it from her, then hear it from us now. It matters.
The problem seems to grow as technology becomes more critical to our work and social lives. Especially post-pandemic, with meetings happening via Zoom instead of in-person and students now attending more classes online, complaints of neck pain and shoulder issues are only growing. If you’re overweight, that can also pull your shoulders forward.
So how do you stop it from getting worse? Let’s start with the simplest thing. Take a look at how you hold your phone when talking. Do you cradle it between your ear and shoulder? If so, look into earbuds, air pods, or a headset to eliminate that stress on your neck.
Then examine your work or study station. If you’re sitting for long periods of time, you want to be sure your chair offers proper support.
Whether you’re working or just standing around, if you’re on the phone, computer, or just talking to friends, incorporate good posture. Not sure what that really is? Try the wall test. You do that by standing with the back of your head, shoulder blades, and back side touching the wall. Your heels will be a few inches away from the wall. Then slide one hand flat between the wall and your lower back. There should only be room for your hand to move in and out. If there’s too much space, suck in your belly button toward your spine. That should push your lower back closer to the wall. If it was too tight to fit your hand, arch your back a bit to make room. Now, test yourself by taking a few steps away from the wall, then take those steps back and see if you’ve held the same posture. Practice that a few times each day. Focus on your head, shoulder blades, and buttocks to make sure they’re all aligned. Soon, it’ll become a habit to stand more erect.
But you have to make the same effort when sitting, too. While seated, your backside and shoulder blades should touch the back of the chair, with a slight arch in your lower back. The feet should be flat on the floor, with knees at 90 degrees. Again, do check-ins throughout the day to remember to keep yourself aligned.
Other things you can do to help keep your shoulders from hunching include exercising and stretching. These are some options that will get you on the right track – just work them into your day or when you’re starting to feel tense.
Chest stretch: Do this by standing with your hands clasped behind your back with your arms straight. Lift your arms until you feel a stretch in your chest and shoulder muscles.
Upper arm stretch: Keep one arm straight out and put your other hand behind the elbow of that arm. Pull the straight arm slowly toward your chest and feel the stretch in the upper arm. Repeat on both sides.
Shoulder lift: Lift your shoulders up toward your ears, inhale, then roll them back and down while exhaling.
Arm circles: Make a T shape with your body, with your arms stretched out straight on each side. Move the arms in small clockwise circles, 20 at a time. Then reverse the direction for 20 more.
You can also work these side planks into your day. To do that, just lie on your side with your elbow under your shoulder. Then lift your hips, so only your feet and elbow are touching the ground. Use your abdominal muscles as you lift. Hold that for 30 seconds, and then try the other side. Aim for two minutes on each side eventually.
If these stretches and exercises don’t seem to help, you’ll want to go see a physician to look deeper into your issue and maybe even work in some physical therapy.
There are also products you can buy online to help remind you to sit up straight or help alleviate some of the pain from years of poor posture. They’re all intended to help keep your shoulders from hunching. From braces to specially-designed bras to intuitive devices with sensors and apps that sound an alarm when you start to slump, you can find a variety of helpful tools. They also vary in price, from about $20 to more than $100. Most have flexible fits to work for any size or body.
There are many parts of aging you can’t do much about, but in most cases, having a hunched back or shoulders isn’t one of them. With conscious efforts now, you can prevent problems down the line. Better posture, stretches, and exercise are key. But with the increased use of technology, you’ll need to be more aware than ever of the pitfalls. I’d say stay on your toes to make sure this doesn’t become a problem, but in this case, flat-footed is definitely best.