Part one: Sacrificing Complexity of Movement for Stability
by Erik Dalton, PhD
Many injuries in America today result from on-the-job muscle/joint strain and overuse syndromes. Working in a technologically driven society has caused an explosive and expensive increase in work-related costs, with injuries occurring to categories of workers previously considered low risk for anything more serious than the occasional paper-cut.
Often seen as a structurally subtle body segment, the neck is burdened with the highly difficult task of supporting the human head. Because of the tension, trauma and poor posture inherent in today’s workplace, it is no surprise that head-on-neck and neck-on-thorax imbalances serve as some of the most common pain generators driving people into our bodywork practices.
This two-part series is excerpted from the author’s new textbook, Advanced Myoskeletal Techniques. This issue’s segment investigates the causes, conditions and corrections associated with one of the most painful of all postural faults: forward-head postures.
The battle against gravity
Muscles are designed to glide independently neighboring myofascial tissues as the central nervous system orchestrates a complex array of specified movements. When observing professional gymnasts at work, one immediately recognizes the astonishing quality, variety and complexity of their coordinated movement patterns. Conversely, the elderly foot-shuffler appears to have body areas frozen in time. Sadly, years of tension, trauma and poor posture—combined with gravitational exposure—force the human body to sacrifice complexity of movement for stability.
Today, more than ever, people are inclined to sit for hours in isometrically contracted postures without adequate physical activity. When muscles contract, fuel is burned and waste products accumulate. In time, these chemical irritants alter the muscles’ resting length, causing enveloping fascial bags to lose their natural suppleness. Prolonged sitting leads to slumping, as people spend countless hours tied to work terminals, home computers, school desks and television sets. As the heavy head slowly drops forward and down, the scapulae externally rotate and protract, increasing thoracic kyphosis and flattening of lumbar lordosis.
Exhausted from battling gravity, intrinsic cervical extensor muscles such as semispinalis, longissimus, the suboccipitals and multifidus become toxic from oxygen deprivation. Extrinsic (phasic) muscles (trapezius, rhomboids, posterior rotator cuff, etc.) prefer burning glucose for fuel but the deep intrinsic support muscles require more oxygen. When tension, trauma and faulty posture reduce the amount of delivered to intrinsic postural muscles, fatigue sets in, causing the gravitational load to shift to the extrinsics.
Extrinsic muscles are dynamic and designed to provide quick bursts of energy Since phasics contain a greater number of fast-twitch fibers, they do not respond well to sustained compressional loading and quickly give out and the energy-depleted intrinsic muscles are once again made to bear the load. This decompensation cycle marks the beginning of a domino effect that structurally manifests as: reduced flexibility; loss of range of motion; and an unattractive, forward-head, slumped-shouldered posture.