Adverse Effects of Forward Slumping Postures

A Primary Ergonomic Issue

One of the most ubiquitous and harmful ergonomic issues related to back pain and injury is the forward slumping posture.This posture is assumed by millions of workers who spend a portion of their day interacting with desktop technology. Sitting at the computer with the head tilted forward has become so common that ergonomists have labeled it with several nicknames including “turtling,” “HOLS” (hunched over laptop syndrome) and tech-neck. 

Forward slumping posture man
Forward slumping posture woman

What effect does tilting the head forward have on our body? Kenneth Hansraj, chief of spine surgery at New York Spine Surgery & Rehabilitation Medicine, says that the human head weights between 10-12 lbs, but as the head tilts forward, the forces seen by the neck surges to 40 lbs. at 30 degrees, and 60 lbs. at 60 degrees.

Musculoskeletal system

Why Are Forward Slumping Postures Bad For Your Health?

Hansraj concludes, “these stresses may lead to early wear, tear, degeneration and possibly surgeries.” Sixty pounds of constant weight pulls on and weakens tendons over time. The weight also stretches (strains) muscles and tendons. A neck sprain or strain makes it painful to move your head, limiting your ability to do everyday tasks."

A forward slumping posture has a cumulative effect that can become much more serious. “That’s where the problem lies,” says Charla Fischer, an orthopedic surgeon at New York University’s Langone Spine Center. “When muscles are stretched in uncomfortable ways for prolonged periods of time, this can lead to injury involving micro-tears and swelling. All muscles do is contract and relax. When they are injured, all they do is contract and that’s where we get spasms and pain.”

Other Adverse Effects of Slumping Forward

The amount of hydro-static pressure within the intervertebral discs (IVD) nucleus is affected by the manner in which one sits,with the trunk either flexed or erect. Nachemson (2010) found that there was 40% more intradiscal pressure at the L3 in unsupported slumped (kyphosed) sitting compared with intradiscal pressure in erect sitting.

“When you lean forward, you are putting your neck in kyphosis, a position that is the opposite of lordosis,” says WilliamTobbler, MD, a Mayfield spine specialist. “Having the neck in this flexed position means you are positioning your cervical joints where they don’t want to be. It causes undue stress and can cause arthritis in the joints over time. Bending your head forward also stresses your vertebral discs, increasing the risk that they will slip or rupture.”

Poor posture also can evolve into a permanent stoop, says Kaliq Chang, a double board-certified physician in interventional pain management and anesthesiology with the Atlantic Spine Center in West Orange, NJ. Chang says as the muscles and ligaments grow accustom to the position and ultimately make it more difficult for the spine to straighten appropriately; other changes, such as bone spurs and even the reshaping of vertebrae, are possible.

Researchers interviewed more than 3,000 employees about their health issues and concerns. After which, they created Emma, a sickly work colleague of the future build to show how sitting all day at ergonomically unfriendly desks might affect workers.

People with poor posture (rounded shoulders, tight pectoral muscles, forward heads) tend to have trouble establishing a good breathing pattern. Diaphragmatic breathing is difficult for these people and even their shallow breaths are inefficient because of the restrictions around the chest.

The Problem with Shallow Breathing

Breathing diagram

When we breathe “shallow”, we recruit our back up breathing muscles of our neck and chest to inhale, we often over-inflate and stay hyper inflated in our rib-cage.

Humans and animals take short shallow breaths when they’re nervous, threatened, afraid, or anxious. Shallow breathing is the opposite of belly breathing or abdominal breathing. We can do this for short periods of time when stressed, but we aren't designed to be on alert all the time. Stress-related illnesses, sleep problems, respiratory problems, immune system weakening, and high blood pressure are all symptoms of long term shallow breathing.

Research suggests that poor posture stretches beyond the negative effects to the spine, muscles, and joints. “When assuming a good posture, elevations in testosterone, increases in serotonin, decrease in cortisol, and increased feeling of power and tolerance for risk taking, while poor postures evoke a hopeless, helpless, powerless and defeated feelings (Hansraj, 2014).”