You’re knee-deep in your latest scene. You look and realize an hour has past.
How was your posture?
You probably didn’t think about it, but odds are you were hunched over that screen the whole time, upper back bent, head pushed forward, gaze down.
Poor posture is a growing problem among all office workers, and particularly among writers who are using their computers, laptops, tablets, and phones for hours every day.
Have no doubt: All that time spent hunched over is hurting your back, neck, and spine, and over time, could cause not only discomfort and pain, but permanent problems, like hunchback.
What is Computer Hunch?
We call it “computer hunch” these days because we use technology so much, but there is a scientific name for that tell-tale hump you get in your upper back when you’ve been hunched over too long: postural kyphosis.
“Kyphosis” is a term that refers to a spinal curve that creates a rounded appearance in the back. Of course we naturally have a curve in the upper back, but if it goes beyond 40 to 45 degrees, it’s considered abnormal. The thoracic spine—which makes up the upper and middle back, going from the cervical spine in the neck to about five inches past the shoulder blades—develops an exaggerated curve.
There are different types of kyphosis. Congenital kyphosis, for example, is a birth defect that occurs because the spine didn’t develop properly. Postural kyphosis, however, is the most common type. It may be caused by arthritis, disc degeneration, and connective tissue disorders, but slouching can also increase your risk.
In fact, we may be doing real damage to our spines by slouching over our devices all the time. According to a 2014 study, just looking down at a cell phone (or other gadget) puts the equivalent of 60 extra pounds on the head—greatly increasing pressure on the spine.
“As the head tilts forward the forces seen by the neck surges to 27 pounds at 15 degrees,” said researcher Kenneth Hansraj, a New York back surgeon, “40 pounds at 30 degrees, 49 pounds at 45 degrees and 60 pounds at 60 degrees.”
Do this for hours at a time and you can see why your vertebrae would suffer.
“These stresses,” Hansraj writes, “may lead to early wear, tear, degeneration, and possibly surgeries.”
A disturbing article in the Daily Mail tells of an increase of young teens showing up in doctor’s offices with computer humps, or abnormal curvature of the spine, caused by too many hours hunched over their gadgets.
“Over time,” osteopath Robin Lansman told the magazine, “the back becomes less and less tolerant to being forced to stoop over a screen and the spine begins to mould to this shape.”
Postural kyphosis can range from mild to severe. A mild case will produce only a slight hunch, whereas a severe case may result in severe deformity, nerve problems, and pain. Even if you have a minor case, however, you could suffer the following symptoms:
- Burning or aching in the upper back or neck
- Nerve impingement
- Reduced blood flow to upper body and head
- Pain that gets worse with prolonged work over your devices
- Difficulty achieving good posture
Over time, if you allow your computer hunch to go unaddressed, actual changes may occur in the spine that may require surgery. In addition, long-term bad posture also tends to put strain on other parts of the body, including the lower back, hips, and knees, resulting in additional pain down the road.
Fortunately, there are easy ways to counteract all those hours spent with your devices.
5 Ways to Prevent Computer Hunch
Part of the problem with computer hunch is that your muscles get way out of shape. When you sit hunched over, your chest muscles tighten, pulling the shoulders inward and spine forward. The muscles in the upper back lengthen and stretch. Over time, they become weakened, while the tight muscles in your chest can become tense and knotted.
We need stretch the chest muscles and strengthen the back muscles. Below are some suggestions for stretches that can counteract the effects of hunching, but it’s also important to take the following precautions:
- Sit up straight! You knew this one was coming! Post a sign at your desk that says, “Posture!” Remind yourself to sit up straight, shoulders back.
- Create an ergonomic setup: If you have to hunch to see your work, it could be that your office setup needs help. Be sure your chair provides ample lumbar support when you’re sitting up straight. Your hands should fit comfortably on the keyboard, at a 90-degree angle from your arms. Also, make sure that your monitor is just slightly below eye level.
- Take frequent breaks: Optimally, get up once every half hour. Set an alarm if you need to, and get out of your chair and go walk around.
- Exercise regularly: Studies have found that any type of exercise (aerobic, weight training, stretching, etc.) helps to prevent back pain. Just be sure to work in at least 30 minutes a day.
- Use a standing desk: This really helps offset the time you spend sitting. Even if you sit sometimes, just breaking up your workday with some standing time can ease the pressure on your spine. Check out our article on standing desks for the best options.
8 Stretches & Exercises to Prevent Computer Hunch
We all slouch. We can’t help it. We get tired and there goes the posture. To counteract the damage this could be doing to your spine, try the following seven exercises:
- Chest Stretch: Facing an open doorway, bend elbows at 90 degrees, raise your arms to shoulder height, and place your forearms against the doorjamb. Lean forward until you feel the stretch in your chest. Hold for 20-30 seconds and repeat a few times.
- Rowing exercise: Any sort of rowing exercise will help strengthen the muscles in your back that tend to go weak with slouching. For an easy at-home way to do it, tie an elastic band around a table leg or other firm surface, and then sit down next to it and pull the strap back, keeping your elbow close to your side. A close-grip row using a cable machine is also very effective.
- Yoga poses: Yoga is great for your back, and there are several poses that specifically help stretch your chest. Try the cobra, cat and cow pose, and upward-facing dog.
- Square-off: This is another exercise to stretch those tight chest muscles. While standing, reach both hands behind you, clasp them together at the base of your lower back, and then push your hands toward the floor while rolling your shoulders back. Your shoulders should square off and your chest expand. Hold the stretch for about 20 seconds, release, and repeat.
- Plank: This is a great exercise for many reasons, and one of them is that it builds the muscles in your back. Simply get into a push-up position and hold it. Don’t let your butt sag, and try to make sure your shoulders aren’t tense or tight. They should simply hold you up straight. Hold for up to a minute if you can.
- Squeeze shoulder blades: Hunching weakens your shoulder muscles. Imagine that you’re holding a small beach ball between your shoulder blades and squeeze them together, holding for 10-15 seconds and then releasing. You can do this exercise at your desk a few times a day.
- Shoulder exercise: Standing straight, lift both arms to your sides, straight out with palms facing downward. Hold for ten seconds, and then slowly lower them back down to your sides, taking a full count of ten to do so. Repeat ten times. You should feel your shoulders working.
- Stand against the wall: Simply stand up straight with your back to the wall, feet shoulder-width apart. Press your head, back, butt, and back of your arms into the wall. Hold for at least 20 seconds, relax, and repeat. This is a good exercise to repeat several times a day. While standing in line (if there is a wall nearby), using the elevator, after using the restroom, etc.
Note: Watch your standing posture: When you stand up, check to see where you’re resting your weight. If it’s on your heels, you will tend to slouch. Your weight should be centered on the balls of your feet. If it’s not, shift your weight, and you may notice that your body naturally adjusts by assuming a better posture. Now put your weight back on your heels and notice the curve that forms in your back. Keep your head square on top of your neck.
Do you hunch too much while working? Please share any tips you may have.
“Kyphosis (Roundback) of the Spine,” American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=a00423.
Olga Khazan, “What Texting Does to the Spine,” The Atlantic, November 18, 2014, http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/11/what-texting-does-to-the-spine/382890/.
Wendy B. Katzman, et al., “Age-Related Hyperkyphosis: It’s Causes, Consequences, and Management,” J Orthop Sports Phys Ther., June 1, 2011; 40(6):352-360, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2907357/.