Have you ever found it difficult to tilt your head and look up for even a few minutes? For example, if you go to a crowded movie theater and sit toward the front, does your neck hurt when you look at the screen? Or, do your back and arms get tired when you raise your arms to nail and hold up a shelf or hang laundry or curtains?
Often, this very common phenomenon occurs as a result of the locked-in positions of a person’s posture. In order to easily look up and raise your arms, your spine needs to be in the correct positioning at its base (low back and pelvis) before it will allow normal motion at the top (neck and head or neck joint).
If the base of the spine is locked or lacking normal motion, the mid-back and neck usually must compensate. This is often seen in people who have forward neck and head and rounded shoulder posture. Now, if a person whose neck is already forward tries to look up, instead of normal motion occurring, the vertebrae lock up and don’t allow much movement. Instead the head tilts back on the top of the spine and compression of that area can occur. This can lead to headaches and neck and shoulder pain.
To gain a sense of the postural curves of the spine, stand a few inches from a flat wall with your feet shoulder width apart. Rest your body from buttocks to head against the wall, standing with knees straight. Notice which parts of the body touch the wall. Is there a large space between the wall and the small of your back? If so, it usually means that your pelvis is tipped forward. This is a very common problem.
Try using your stomach muscles to flatten your low back against the wall. How successful you are depends upon how far forward your pelvis is tipped and how much your muscles have had to compensate. Ideally, there should be some space between the wall and the small of your back, but you should have the mobility necessary to flatten your back.
Next look at how your mid-back and shoulder blades touch the wall. Does it feel like mostly your mid-back spine touches, without your shoulder blades or the back of your head touching? If so, your mid-back has become more rounded than normal and may indicate the need for some follow-up exercise and a posture improvement program. This situation would make it difficult to do sustained activity overhead.
Do the shoulder blades feel even as they touch the wall? Or does one feel higher or more out to the side? The position of the shoulder blades determine the position of the joint of the shoulder. Imbalance here often indicates restriction in ability to use your arms overhead.
Lastly, how difficult is it for the back of your head to touch the wall? Ideally, you should feel the back of your head touch near the bottom (where the back rim of a baseball cap would touch). When your head is too forward, you may not be able to touch your head against the wall at all, or you may be able to do so only if you tip your chin up. In that case, only the top back of your head will touch. Please be careful not to do anything that hurts. If you have any pain doing this simple exercise, it is an indication that something is out of balance. After you check with your doctor, you can find that working with a physical therapist trained in manual therapy can be very helpful.
The ability to lift your arms and tilt your head and neck back are very much determined by many things. Arthritic changes, disc problems and a variety of other medical issues can limit this ability. By becoming aware of postural changes that lead to the problems, you can help yourself stay more flexible and balanced.