Also known as scholar’s neck, texting neck or reading neck, forward neck posture is a common problem. Many clinicians believe that modern-day activities, such as spending long hours at a PC or desk, are significant contributory factors of forward head posture. Can anything be done about it?
What is forward neck posture?
This posture is a misalignment of your neck and head. Over time, it can cause shortening of muscles which leads to aching or painful neck and shoulders. In some cases, people suffer from frequent headaches too.
Good posture is when the ears are positioned directly above the shoulders with the chest open and shoulders back. In this neutral position, the head’s weight is naturally balanced on the cervical spine.
Forward neck posture occurs when the shoulders and upper back round forward and down. The head follows, pulling the gaze downward too and so when someone is working at a PC, for example, then will lift their head. This causes the jaw to jut outwards and a sharp crease in the back of the neck – in effect, there should be a straight line from the back of the head, running down to the middle of the upper back.
Constantly looking down at a phone or another device, completing close work such as sewing, and carrying significant weight at the front of the body all contribute to this movement in the neck. Poor posture support during sleep from both pillows and mattresses exacerbate this condition too.
When poor posture is not corrected, the result is a slight rounding of the shoulders, known as kyphosis. This is a medical term and there are many different types. It is often known unflatteringly as a ‘hunchback’.
The problem with a forward head posture
With the neck leaning forward, the head is placed in front of the shoulders rather than directly above, where it should be. This forward head position creates all kinds of problems including;
- Increased stress on the cervical spine
The spine is made up of three parts. Looking at this from side-on, these sections form three natural curves. The cervical spine at the very top and the lower back, known as the lumbar, for a ‘c’ curve. The middle section, the thoracic spine, is a reverse ‘c’ or kyphosis. This is the segment of the spine that is affected by forward head posture.
The thoracic spine should have a natural kyphosis of between 20 to 45°. When this reverse curve is more than 50°, it is considered ‘excessive’.
When this happens, there is more stress placed on the cervical spine and when we hold our head forward for any length of time, the weight distribution of the head is altered too, another factor that causes problems.
A human adult head weighs between 10 and 11 lbs. As the head tilts forward, it feels heavier. This is because it is now stretching the spine and surrounding muscles. For every 2.5cms that a head is held forward due to poor posture, an additional 10 lb load is placed on the cervical spine.
In other words, holding your head forward by 5cms doubles the load that the cervical spine has to carry.
- Hyperflexion and hyperextension
Hyperflexion of the neck places pressure on the lower section of the cervical spine. This is because the vertebrae are tilting too far forward.
But this causes the top end of the cervical spine to do the opposite – in other words it straightens too much, which is known as hyperextension. This can’t be avoided because the brain automatically keeps the head in an upright position so the eyes are looking straight ahead.
This constitutes an alteration of the cervical spine’s natural curves. It leads to muscles and nerves being stretched too, resulting in aches and neck pain.
- Muscle overload
Neck and head muscles are continually under strain due to poor posture. This leads to aches and pain. Likewise, a forward head posture can make the neck more susceptible to strains and spasms.
- Rounded upper back
Allowed to continue unchecked, forward head posture can be the cause of a noticeable rounding of the upper back too.
How do you know if you have forward head posture?
There are several indicators that forward head posture could be the cause behind the following symptoms:
- Muscle tightness
- Neck tightness and pain
- Back pain
- Muscle spasms
- Restricted breathing
- Poor balance
- Headaches and migraines
- Numbness or tingling in the arms and hands
- Temporomandibular joint pain
As well as the above indicators, you may also be able to see that your head is placed too far forward by doing the following:
Stand with your back up against the wall. Get a friend to take a photo or use a mirror to check your reflection. Forward head posture doesn’t have to be very pronounced or overly obvious to cause a problem, even the slightest of head tilt forwards can lead to aches and pains.
Photo credit @BackIntelligence
Solving the problem
Being aware of posture, how the skeleton is placed under strain when we sit, move or sleep is key to preventing forward head posture. For those people suffering from forward head posture, it is possible to manage the problem and in some cases, reverse it.
Over a prolonged period of time – that is, many years - the muscles and some nerves may be damaged by the head being held too far forward. The relief from pain or spasms is often found in medication, as well as physiotherapy and massage. Undoubtedly, being aware of this posture and how it is linked to modern activities can help to minimise the possibility of suffering from the pain caused by poor posture.
As well as preventing forward head posture, the following remedies can also be used to relieve the symptoms too;
Forward head posture is common. By being more aware of the issue, anyone who is at risk of developing forward head posture – such as office workers, those working on screens and similar situations – can take steps to stop it happening.
Neck exercises and being aware of your posture, in particular spine alignment, also help to reduce the possibility of forward head posture becoming ‘the norm’.
Daily exercises that specifically help the neck, spine and head can help to relieve symptoms but also strengthen key muscles.
Being more aware of how you sit and stand is also key to preventing aches and pains from poor posture, including forward head posture. When you sit at your desk, do you lean forward with your chin lifted, for example? If so, this can lead to forward head posture.
This is just one example. If your job involves being seated at a desk, using screens or other kinds of technology, you should have an ergonomic workstation. This means a desk chair that gives you the right support for your back, a monitor that can be adjusted in height as well as a desk at the right height for you too.
Just as an ergonomic workstation is designed around you, your bed should be too, including the right firmness of mattress and in particular, the right pillow.
There is no suggestion that the wrong pillow will cause forward head posture but the poor support on offer from a pillow that is either too soft or too hard, too thin or too bulky for your sleeping position will exacerbate neck ache, spasms and pain.
The right pillow will support your spine as you sleep. You will need a different pillow depending on your dominant sleeping position. A good sleeping posture helps your back and neck, as well as promoting a restful night’s sleep.
Back sleepers, for example, should opt for a thinner pillow so that the head is not pushed forward. Side sleepers need the opposite with a firm high pillow to keep the neck and spine aligned. Front sleepers also need a thin pillow too. Placing a thin pillow under the hips also helps to minimise back and neck pain.
For those sleepers who toss and turn a lot in their sleep, finding the right pillow can be a case of trial and error.
The ergonomic pillow and forward head posture
Taking action to improve your posture will help forward head posture as will sleeping with the right pillow. But finding the right one is difficult, especially with so many to choose from.
An ergonomic pillow is designed with every sleeping position in mind. Contoured and with support in mind, this style of pillow also promotes better spine alignment. This means you’ll spend less time tossing and turning trying to find the right sleeping position. More importantly, the pillow moulds to you so you get the support you need every night.
Correcting forward head posture
Keeping your spine and neck in good health plays an important role in your overall health. The spine is a column that protects your central nervous system and so when you crick your neck or place pressure on the spine, it can result in more than a pain in the neck.
Being mindful of how your sit and stand, followed by taking action to stop slumping or crouching forward is the first step. Gentle neck exercises are another, as well as choosing a supportive pillow for a restful night’s sleep. But if you the problem persists, consider seeing your doctor or a physiotherapist.