The Computer Hunch - heal chronic back pain with deep tissue massage!
1 November 2014
Many of us spend hours typing behind a computer and somewhere in the back of our minds is the niggling feeling that it’s not that great for our back. Well surprise surprise, that niggling feeling is often right! Many people have discomfort in their upper back, shoulders and neck. This can be typically traced back to the position adopted whilst sat behind the computer, with the laptop being the biggest troublemaker.
Have you been told or do you feel that your shoulders are held higher than before and that they are rotated forwards? Take a look in the mirror, standing sideways on and you can often see that this is actually the case, the shoulders are rotated forwards and downwards. This will often mean an altered posture, particularly in the upper back. Discomfort can come in the form of aches and pains in the shoulder and neck as well as headaches. This can be a clear indication of a problem and a reason to start some simple steps to keep your back in good shape and avoid future more serious problems.
This is a complex issue with many contributing factors and knock-on effects. In this article we will focus on some of the key things to consider in this topic, but there other surrounding muscles and structures that have a role to play.
The shoulder is a wonderful joint, with the largest range of movement compared to any other joint in the body. The shoulder is considered a ball and socket joint – the name already tells you how the joint works. This enables great range of movement that other joints in the body don't'. You can see this by comparing the shoulder to the knee joint for example, which only really allows movement in one plane – it’s why you can rotate your arm and not your knee!
However, the shoulder is a special kind of ball and socket joint because how the surrounding and working muscles interact is critical. The other main ball and socket joint in the body is the hip joint, this is truly a ball and socket as the hip has a good “socket” for the head of the femur. The shoulder is different and really can be considered to be more of a ball and saucer joint, as the socket is quite shallow and really shaped much more like a saucer as opposed to a full socket. This saucer structure means there is less structural support for strength in the joint and a greater reliance on the muscles for stability. Therefore, a problem in one of the muscles of or around the shoulder can have all sorts of knock effects.
As we spend a lot of time sitting behind a keyboard, the action of typing requires us to put our bodies into an odd position and one that is not per say natural. This action often means that as you type you are lifting your shoulders. This in itself is not a problem, but the movement is held over a long period and the shoulders are forced to remain, as opposed to the natural pattern of muscles to contract and relax. For example, a normal muscle pattern can be shown when doing a bicep-curl, you curl your arm up, contracting the bicep to facilitate the movement and then relax to lower you arm. Thus the bicep contracts and relax and you complete the exercise, lifting and lowering your arm. Comparing this typing would mean curling the arm up and leaving it there for 2/3/4hrs before lowering your arm again!
Furthermore, using a laptop can be even worse as most people literally have the laptop on their lap and hunch over it - as opposed to on a desk where they could adopt a much more ergonomically advantageous posture.
It’s not just typing that is the villain. How you are sitting on the chair you have and the set up at your computer, with eye levels and arm position, can also lead to you altering the position of your back and putting yourself in a strained position on a repeated basis. If you are using a laptop, this most definitely requires you to adapt a hunched position to use the machine and that has a real effect on your back.
It’s not necessarily all the computer’s fault however, hunching is also possible and related to traits that you might not be that aware of. For example, if you are a tall person or are in an uncomfortable position, quite subconsciously you try to lower your shoulders and bring them inwards, this is to both protect yourself and to be less imposing. Stress can also lead us to raise our shoulders and hold them. No matter the cause, this does have an effect over time and can lead to issues.
What’s happening with my muscles?
Typically with the computer hunch you are building up problems in the Trapezuis and Levator Scapula muscle. Other muscles in the shoulder, back and neck are also affected, but let’s just keep the focus on these two muscles as these are likely to be the first contenders for the prize of being most affected. Levator Scapula is the muscle that works to elevate the scapula (hence the name) – this is to lift up the shoulder. If you try now to shrug your shoulders, Levator Scapula is the prime muscle to initiate the action. Trapezius is a large, albeit thin, kite shape muscle that spans a large part of your back, it has a lot to do with upper body and neck movements. Both of these muscles attach at the Occiput – the base of your skull - and tension in these muscles can often be the cause of headaches. As you spend time holding your shoulders up, these muscles are strained and get damaged. Muscles fibres shorten in dysfunction, this means they have a restricted range of movement and thus will then constantly adopt an altered position, which is typically the protracted and/or raised shoulders.
What can I do about it?
If you are having problems, discomfort, aches or pains from sitting behind the computer there are some steps that you can take to help yourself as well as seeking the help of someone in the know.
1. Try to be aware of your position behind the computer, look in a mirror if possible. Consider if your shoulders are raised and/or rotated forwards. If so, try to relax and let your shoulders naturally drop and think about rotating them backwards slightly.
2. Make sure you are set up ergonomically behind the computer. Take simple steps to minimise the harmful position you put your body in. If you are using a laptop, think of having a separate mouse and key board so that you can set the screen away from the keyboard and at the right level. Whilst behind the computer the screen should be at eye level when you are looking straight ahead, not having to look down. Your arms should be at a right angle to the keyboard with your elbows bent at 90 degrees, not having to strain. This should then be mirrored with your back against the back of your chair and your legs sitting comfortably on the ground, knees again at a 90 degree angle.
3. Stretch. Help your muscles and remind them of their natural length after periods behind the computer. You are best off getting someone to show you how to stretch correctly, to get the most effective results. Not forgetting, for example, to stretch the muscles at the front too, the Pectoralis and Scalines muscles are vital to be stretched. When working on the body you have to always consider the compensating movement or action.
4. See a therapist that is experienced in this field, deep tissue massage is your best bet. An appropriately qualified therapist should be able to help you and work out some of the adhesions that have built up and relieve tension, as well as help to show you stretches etc.
5. Spend less time behind the computer!
This article was written with assistance from Richard Myhill, who runs his own deep tissue massage practice in Amsterdam: Myssage Amsterdam. Richard qualified in London with international diplomas in holistic massage, deep tissue massage and Indian head massage. He then trained at the world famous Institute of Sports and Remedial Massage under Mel Cash and is a highly qualified Clinical Sports and Remedial Massage therapist. Richard likes to keep a balance across all aspects of his treatments; ensuring that you have a relaxing but effective massage in a great environment at a sensible price.