Everyone has seen elderly people with the “hunched” over or rounding of the shoulders syndrome. The medical term for this condition is called Excessive Thoracic Kyphosis (ETK), defined as the disproportional forward rounding or curvature of the middle and upper back (thoracic spine). I know, a medical term you probably could do without clouding your head up with. This condition is becoming extremely common as more and more of us “hunch” over a computer or mobile device. The longer we stay in the “hunched” position, the more our muscles are going to become unbalanced and cause prolonged issues. Along with some other issues…..limited function,muscle aches and pains, breathing problems, impaired athletic performance, and increased mental stress.
There are different “adaptations” the body makes to everyday activities we do that potentially could cause skeletal muscle imbalances, resulting in ETK. One of the most common I have seen in the past few years would be with handheld devices. We tend to move our head forward to focus on the small screen, causing our thoracic spine to round forward in order to help hold our head up. Excessive pronation of our feet, cause internal rotation of our legs and hips to shift backwards and pelvis to rotate forward. Once that pelvis shifts forward, our lower back is overarched and the middle and upper back round forward to maintain body balance. Changes in the length of your bicep-tension properties of your bicep muscle, which originates on the outer edge of your scapula (shoulder blade) and attaches to your forearm, can also contribute to imbalance. So when your arms are flexed for long periods of time during activities like driving,typing, cooking, and texting, the bicep becomes chronically shortened. When your arms are straightened, your bicep cannot lengthen properly. This causes the forearms to pull the shoulder blades, via the biceps, into that forward position causing your rib cage to drop as well (thoracic kyphosis). Sedentary lifestyles or occupations that require alot of sitting, whether playing video games or working on a computer cause excessive rounding of upper back as well.
Some things you wouldn’t think attribute to ETK as well are respiratory conditions such as asthma or allergies. These can affect the body’s breathing mechanisms and diaphragm’s ability to contract and relax to it’s fullest potential. Rib cage restrictions caused by chronic breathing problems can result in immobility of the thoracic spine and can eventually cause ETK.
Gluten, lactose, fructose, and alcohol intolerances can inflame our digestive tract, which shares connective tissue with other soft-tissue structures and muscles that attach to the spine. So chronic inflammation can cause muscle restrictions throughout the torso, causing ETK.
Prolonged periods of spinal flexion, as required in bike riding/cycling, martial arts, freestyle swimming, and hobbies like gardening or sewing, will also contribute to ETK.
Being unhappy or stressed, whether it be financial, relationship, career, or family issues cause psychological stressors. When your stressed out, your brain perceives a threat, whether imagined or real, the body physically prepares to protect itself against the danger. Typically your jaw tightens, abdominal muscles tighten, limit and maybe even holding your breathe, and rounding your shoulders to protect your vital organs may attribute to ETK.
Excessive Thoracic Kyphosis is essentially a postural problem, but can manifest into a variety of other symptoms: pain, limited function, poor health and disease, increases mental stress, lower back pain, disk degeneration, and nerve compression. When you compensate your movements, as discussed earlier, can cause problems like sciatica, sacroiliac joint pain, hip bursitis, IT band syndrome, knee pain, achilles tendinitis, plantar fasciitis and ankle pain.
Everyday movements and athletic performance can be limited by ETK. The excessive flexion of the middle and upper back limits shoulder function, which can make it difficult to do ordinary things like washing hair, placing objects on high shelf, or pulling on a shirt.
I’ve discussed what Excessive Thoracic Kyphosis (ETK) is and what symptoms and factors may lead to it, but how can we fix or alleviate it? A few things you may want to try:
1. Place two tennis balls on either side of spine in line with bottom of shoulder blades. Use a pillow to support your head and bring your arms across your chest and hug yourself. Find a sore spot and maintain pressure on these spots for 10-15 secs. until releases. Maneuver body to another sore spot and repeat. Typically spending roughly 5 mins. a day performing this self massage technique. Trick you can try, puncture tennis ball, fill with water, and freeze to add a little “ice” element.
2. Roll a towel up and place between between shoulder blades and concentrate on pulling shoulders down to touch the floor. This will help to stretch and loosen up your chest muscles as well as strengthen your upper back muscles.
3. Take notice of inflammatory foods you eat. Some people are susceptible to inflammatory foods such as gluten, wheat, lactose, sugar, and alcohol should limit their intake. There are anti-inflammatory (or soothing) foods or compounds such as aloe vera, slippery elm and yogurt, or other probiotics can be used to improve gastrointestinal tract and consequently alleviate ETK.
4. Practice breathing and relaxation techniques to help mobilize the ribcage, strengthen the diaphragm, supply blood to organs, promote relaxation, and decrease stress. Focus on deep breaths.
5. Incorporating some upper back and rear deltoid (shoulder) work into your workout routine will help with your posture as well. This will help with developing strength and flexibility for better posture. Reverse flys or seated cable rows with shoulders back during exercises will help with this.
Our body is very adaptable and designed to respond to a changing environment. So just keep in mind and pay attention to some of the symptoms and remedies I mentioned in this article and hopefully you will limit or head off the dreaded “rounding of the shoulders” in your golden years!