We’ve all heard it before “stand up straight”, “stop slouching”, “don’t laze on that chair” it seems like every generation hears the same words from their parents. But is posture really as simple as it sounds?
In the 20+ years of seeing patients I think I’ve seen it all. Patients who have had the weirdest of contraptions to keep the posture straight, braces, taping, alarms, you name it I’ve seen it all. I’ve seen patients try to learn to stay upright by walking with books on their head and I’ve seen patients yell at their children until they’re blue in the face. But if we know it is so important to stay vertical to help reduce degeneration and injury why do we do it in the first place?
Understanding the brain
Human evolution has occurred over millions and millions of years. During this time our brains have evolved in three distinct phases. About 300 million years ago our brainstem started to develop. This provides our automated body control responses and our flight or fight mechanisms. From here our emotional centres began to develop increasing our brain mass and providing us with enhanced functions. Finally, over the last 2-3 million years our frontal lobes grew.
These stages can be traced with the development of species on the planet as well which often leads to these areas being called our reptilian brain, mammalian brain and neocortex.
As we look through the development of these species we can also see very specific posture changes relating to the emergence of new areas of the brain. For example, generally speaking, most reptiles are low to the ground and have very simple movement mechanisms. Mammals on the other hand tend to be higher off the ground and more mobile. But the real changes have occurred in the last 2-3 million years where are neocortex (new brain) has developed.
We can see as a species emerging, we’ve moved from all fours to up on 2 legs with a flexed ape posture into the species we are today with an upright posture a chest that stands out with our chins and face pointing forwards.
The brain and muscle tone
Over years of development there’s no doubt muscular activation patterns have changed. Our outer cortex, that worm-looking area that most recognize as our brain, stimulates and inhibits our older reptilian areas to help guide our survival mechanisms.
One of these areas specifically regulates how we activate muscles. This stimulation tends to create a turning off of our chest (flexor) muscles in our upper body and our extensors (posterior) muscles in our lower body. It’s the development of this area that seems to have led to us having this upright posture seen in modern humans today.
What happens when this mechanism fails?
When our cortex fails to stimulate these areas, we end up with a lack of inhibition of these areas. The result is our posture becomes flexed, our arms turn in, our head leans forward and our feet will often rotate out and roll in. In short, we start taking on the posture of our ancestors, the ape.
Many will look at this and suggest we need to strengthen your core or extensor muscles, maybe put orthotics in your shoes, but in reality, what your seeing is the brain becoming more primitive. You’re seeing the brain going back to our previous state of evolution. In short, you’re seeing the cortex fatigue.
Why does this happen?
Cortical changes can happen for many reasons. The most obvious time this is visible is in people who have had a significant stroke where one side of the body adapts this ‘hemiplegic’ posture. But there are many non-pathological causes of similar patterns.
The most common reason we see this flexed posture is because of brain fatigue. This can come from a variety of reasons. Here’s a short list of some of the more common reasons we see on a regular basis:
- Insulin resistance
- High levels of sugar in the diet
- Lack of specific fats
- Excessive screen time
- Mental fatigue from a lack of down time
- Poor day night routines
- Poor sleep quality
- Recurrent late nights
- TMJ dysfunction (TMD)
- Balance or vestibular problems
- Poor exercise habits
- Over training
Complications from long term dysfunction
Whilst there’s not a lot of research to conclusive say one thing leads to another, changes in brain health are never great long term. We should be doing all we can to keep our brains healthy.
We have seen some recurrent issues that seem to be specifically related to changes in posture that often result in chronic injuries that are often poorly responsive to standard treatments.
At the top of the list is hip, shoulder and lower back pain. These often occur as the muscle firing sequences result in changes in biomechanics leading to joint irritation and inflammation.
Neck and knee problems are next on the list. As our head moves forward the load on our cervical musculature is increased placing higher demand on muscle function for stability. The rotation occurring at our feet and our hips creates tension on our knees leading changes in weight loading patterns. We commonly see this in those with patella tracking problems and pain at the front of the knees.
What to do
Whenever we’re talking about complicated mechanisms the best option is always to be assessed by someone who is thoroughly trained in the area. Only with an accurate diagnosis can correct treatment be applied to provide you with rapid results.
Here are my top 3 tips to try and maximize your chance to improve the mechanism:
- Early to be and early to rise – Sleep is critical, don’t skimp on it.
- Move away from the standard high sugar diet that has become the western world – This tends to lead to insulin resistance and reduced ability to utilize glucose
- Regular aerobic exercise – Aerobic exercise elevates a specific substance in the brain known as BDNF encourage brain health
The brain is the forgotten hero in posture and injury. Unfortunately this leads to many suffering chronically with pain and injury that might have been avoided with correct assessment and very simple lifestyle modification.
If you’re stuck not knowing where to start just give our team a call on 9318 7758 or click the chat button. We’re always here to help guide you back to the quality of life you want to live.