Posture is a critical part of physical health, including bone health. More than an end unto itself, good posture is a sign of physical strength and balance that indicates a lower risk for falls and fracture.
Today we'll have an in-depth look at a little-known postural problem called Upper Crossed Syndrome (UCS) that can have many negative health effects. You'll learn what causes it, how to recognize it, and what impact it may be having on your bones and your overall health.
We also include three exercises to help you prevent or reverse UCS, and maintain a healthy and balanced body.
Upper Crossed Syndrome
Upper Crossed Syndrome (UCS) is an imbalance in the muscles of the neck, shoulders, and chest. It occurs when the back muscles that span the neck and shoulders (upper trapezius and levator scapula) become strained and tight, in conjunction with the front chest muscles (pectoralis major and minor) shortening and tightening.1
As a result of those overactive muscles, other muscles are underused and therefore become weak. The muscles in the front of the neck (cervical flexor muscles) and in the lower shoulders (rhomboid and lower trapezius muscles) become too weak to help hold the body in proper alignment.1
The word “crossed” describes the x shape that is created by the overlap of overactive and underactive muscle regions.
Upper Crossed Syndrome is an imbalance of muscles, caused by muscles in the head, neck, and shoulders over-tightening and straining, while other muscles grow weak.
Causes And Effects Of UCS
This combination of tightened and weakened muscles has numerous effects on the body, and on risks for related injuries. Here are the main symptoms caused by UCS:
- Tightness and discomfort
- Shoulder injury
- Pulled muscles in the back, shoulders, and neck
- Upper and lower back pain
- Shoulder pain
- Neck pain
- Jaw pain
- Difficulty sitting
- Restricted range of motion in shoulders and neck
- Nerve pain, numbness, or tingling in the neck and arms
- Rotator cuff problems
- Hunched back
- Degenerative joint disease
Most of these symptoms are additional risk factors for falls and fractures. Instability, osteoarthritis, reduced range of motion, weakness- all can contribute to a fall.
The causes of UCS are behavioral and typically develop over a period of time in which certain postures and behaviors are repeated. The most notable cause is sitting or standing with the head in a forward position (Forward Head Posture or FHP). Many people default to this misaligned posture during activities such as:
- Watching television
- Using a cellphone
- Using a computer or laptop
- Sitting at a desk
The common denominator is sitting. Sitting for too long each day wreaks havoc on your posture, and may easily result in UCS, especially if you don't get adequate exercise. A recent study found that the average American's total daily sitting time increased by more than an hour per day between 2007 and 2016.2
You can identify UCS based on several postural habits. Monitor your body for these telltale signs of UCS:
- Forward Head Posture, when the head sticks out and down in front of the body
- Hunched back, and the collapsed posture that attends hunching
- Elevated shoulders that round forward
- Winged scapula, in which the shoulder blades protrude from the surface of your back
UCS causes physical symptoms like headaches and back pain. It is often caused by too much sitting, poor alignment, and lack of exercise. Monitor your activities, sitting time, and posture to detect UCS.
Study Shows Effective Strategies For Reversing UCS
Fortunately, UCS can be prevented and reversed. A 2016 study looked at the effect of middle and lower trapezius strength exercises and levator scapulae and upper trapezius stretching exercises on UCS.1
This combination of strengthening and stretching aims to address the two problems that cause USC: weak muscles and tight muscles. In the study, 30 students with UCS were divided into two groups. The experimental group participated in strength and stretching exercises three times a week for four weeks. The control group did not.
The researchers then used digital infrared thermographic imaging (DITI) to compare the neck muscles of the two groups. DITI reveals changes in body temperature in painful or diseased areas and is commonly used to examine the effect of treatment for musculoskeletal diseases.
After the course of exercises and stretches, the DITI revealed that the experimental group experienced a reduction in Upper Crossed Syndrome, while the control group remained the same.2
A study found that exercises to strengthen the middle and lower trapezius muscles, combined with stretches for the levator scapulae and upper trapezius muscles, can alleviate UCS.
Exercises To Prevent UCS
You can prevent and help reduce symptoms of UCS at home with a few simple exercises. These easy movements strengthen the muscles that are weak in UCS and loosens and lengthens the muscles that are short and tight in UCS.
- The Posture Adjuster – The exercise specifically targets Forward Head Posture, which both causes and is then perpetuated by UCS.
- Triple Posture Corrector – This simple movement strengthens the trapezius and rhomboid muscles needed to correct and prevent UCS.
- Shoulder Blade And Back Straightener – This exercise aligns your shoulder blades and corrects winged scapula to improve posture and prevent UCS and kyphosis (Dowager's Hump).
Try all three as part of your regular bone-building exercise routine and make note of improvements to your posture.
Targeted exercises can prevent and reverse UCS. Try the three linked above.
Stand Straight And Proud
Exercises to improve posture and avoid conditions like Upper Crossed Syndrome and Forward Head Posture have the additional effect of stimulating new bone formation.
Not only are you priming your body to prevent falls by remaining strong, agile, and flexible, you're also triggering the creation of healthy new bone. That's a great example of how taking care of your overall well-being helps you reverse and prevent osteoporosis.
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