Posture and Pain

“Posture doesn’t just reflect our emotional states; it can also cause them,” says Amy Cuddy in a recent New York Times article about the effect that using mobile devices has on our posture.  Cuddy is a professor at Harvard Business School and presenter of the popular TED Talk, “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are.”

Pain is a subjective and distressing feeling that people perceive when they encounter an uncomfortable experience. Pain can be both a psychological and/or a physiological experience. While psychogenic pain is typically experienced as a result of fear, nervousness, anxiety, doubt, grief or negativity, physiological pain is now days very frequently associated with repetitive motion injuries. A repetitive motion injury occurs when the body’s tissues are repeatedly exposed to loads beyond their functional capacity, which consequently causes many repetitive mini traumas to the tissues.

Considering that the body is a dynamic and adaptable organism, it is very well equipped to compensate for these micro injuries. The main reason that most people don’t view micro traumas as being a severely debilitating factor to their health is because we learn to work around the injury. That is both a blessing and a curse because when an injury occurs in one area, the body will stabilize that body part and will recruit surrounding tissues to perform the intended movement or action. However, repeated musculoskeletal compensation leads to postural distortions; and poor posture, over time, leads to chronic pain patterns.

When in pain, people tend to become more sedentary in an attempt to avoid activities that trigger pain and discomfort, and yet decreased level of physical activity leads to stiff joints and weak muscles which further exacerbates the problem. Chronic pain has become such an epidemic that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that “pain affects more Americans than diabetes, heart disease and cancer combined.”

So what can be done? The first thing needed to create lasting change and success is awareness.  Allow yourself the space to see things as they are, without forming judgments, excuses or rationalizations. Only by acknowledging what is, do you put yourself in a position to do something about it. So perhaps next time you are brushing your teeth at the bathroom sink, you take a look at your posture; or the next time you are sitting at your computer, you notice any tensions in your neck, hands, and low back.  Or maybe when you are standing in the checkout line at the grocery store you move side to side a few times and unattachedly notice if one side feels stronger than the other, and if your feet are nice and relaxed or tight and tense. Whether you are looking to get out of pain or are simply interested in ensuring that you are functioning at a healthy level, raising the level of awareness as to what your body is doing helps you to then take the next step in creating the needed change.  

A recent study published in Journal of Health Psychology concluded that sitting with an upright posture can function as a coping mechanism against stress. From a physiologic standpoint, properly aligned posture significantly decreases the stress on supportive ligaments, tendons and muscles.  And so although you may not be able to make something better immediately, you can take the first steps in honoring your body and wellbeing by acknowledging how well your body moves in space, and then simply noticing what areas need your further attention.   


By Dr. Larissa Woolston DC, MA