8 steps to fix upper-crossed syndrome. The thing that's giving you headaches and neck aches

Updated: Sep 14, 2021



What is upper-crossed syndrome?


Upper-crossed syndrome (UCS) is a condition that usually happens over time and results in rounded shoulders, head in front of the body and an exaggerated curve in the neck and upper back. It usually accompanies the elderly. However, it is extremely common in office workers and becoming more common in the younger population with the popularity of smart devices.


The human body is an amazing machine! Movement occurs because we have muscles that contract and release around a joint. When one muscle contracts there is a muscle on the opposite side of the joint that elongates and allows that joint to move. I learned this in high school biology (thank you Mr. Lamb!). Until that point, I thought there were pulling and pushing muscles. But muscles can only pull.


Problems occur when the muscles on one side of a joint become weak and long. This usually leads to the other side of the joint becoming tight (not to be confused with strong). In the case of UCS, the muscles of the middle back - rhomboids and middle and lower trapezius - as well as the deep neck flexors - longus capitus and longus colli - become very weak. (See this excellent video of the muscles of the neck). As a result, the chest - pectoralis minor, and posterior neck muscles - upper trapezius and levator scapulae - become very tight. This results in pain in the upper body, including shoulder pain, neck pain and upper back pain and a limited range of motion.


Causes of UCS

  • Long hours sitting at a computer

  • Watching TV

  • Playing on a smartphone

  • Long hours driving

  • Sedentary lifestyle

Symptoms of UCS

  • Headaches

  • Neck pain in the back of the neck

  • Chest pain and tightness

  • Upper back pain

  • Shoulder pain

  • Difficulty sitting or driving for long periods of time

  • Numbness or pain in the upper arms

  • Restricted range of motion in the neck or shoulders

UCS flexibility test

  • Stand with your back, buttocks, and heels against a wall

  • Can you put the back of your head against the wall without tilting your chin upward.

The Fix


Releasing and stretching the tight muscles and strengthening the weak muscles will correct UCS. Perform the following steps:


1. Release the pectoralis minor and major muscles

  1. Lie on the floor on your stomach with your right arm making a half-goal post

  2. Place a tennis or lacrosse ball or softball on the chest between the shoulder and sternum

  3. Find a tender spot that is a 5 to 8 intensity on a scale of 1 to 10

  4. Hold here for :30 to 2:00 or until a release is felt in the muscle and there is just pressure but no pain

  5. Repeat other side


2. Stretch the pectoralis minor and major muscles

  1. Stand in a doorway and lift your right arm into a half-goal post position and place the forearm inside the doorframe

  2. Step forward with the right leg until a stretch is felt in the chest muscle and hold :30 to 2:00 or until a release is felt in the muscle3.


3. Release the levator scapulae and upper trapezius muscles

  1. The directions for these two are almost identical. The only difference is the placement of the ball. Stand with your back against a wall. For the levator scapulae, put the ball above the shoulder blade next to the spine

  2. Keeping pressure on the ball, take a step forward and lean back trying to find a tender spot of between 5 to 8 on a scale of 1 to 10. Hold for :30 to 2:00 or until there is just pressure but no pain.


4. Follow the above instructions for the upper trapezius. However, place the ball halfway between the neck and the shoulder above the scapulae.



5. Stretch for the levator scapulae

  1. Sit on a chair with your back and abs slightly tightened. Reach behind you with your right hand and grab the edge of the chair. Lean your upper body to the left, keeping your head upright until you feel a light pull in your right shoulder or upper arm.

  2. Now try to lift your right shoulder toward the ceiling for five seconds. Do not allow your body to move sideways. Relax for a couple of seconds and then lean your upper body a little more to the side. This is the correct starting point for the stretch.

  3. Rotate your head 45 degrees to the left and place your left hand over the top of your head and gently let the weight of your hand pull your head at an angle toward your left hip and hold for 10 seconds.

  4. Resist by carefully pushing the back of your head into your hand for 5 seconds.

  5. Relax the contraction and gently stretch the muscle for 10 seconds.

  6. Resist by carefully pushing the back of your head into your hand for 5 seconds.

  7. Relax the contraction and gently stretch the muscle for 10 seconds.

  8. Slowly raise head to starting position.

  9. Repeat other side


6. Stretch for the upper trapezius

  1. Sit on a chair with your back and abs slightly tightened. Reach behind you with your right hand and grab the edge of the chair. Lean your upper body to the left, keeping your head upright until you feel a light pull in your right shoulder or upper arm.

  2. Tilt your head to the left and then rotate your head to the right. Do not let your head drop forward.

  3. Place your left hand over the top of the head and gently, with just the weight of your hand, pull your head to the right shoulder and hold for 10 seconds.

  4. Resist by carefully pushing the side of your head into your hand for 5 seconds.

  5. Relax the contraction and gently stretch the muscle for 10 seconds. It should relax a little bit more to a new stretch point.

  6. Resist by carefully pushing the back of your head into your hand for 5 seconds again.

  7. Relax the contraction and gently stretch the muscle for 10 seconds finding a new stretch point.

  8. Slowly raise head to starting position.

  9. Repeat on other side.

  10. Perform periodically during the day – as much as 5-10 times.


7. Strengthen then deep neck flexor muscles

  1. Stand with your back against a wall

  2. Place your left hand on your chin – this is to keep your chin level as you pull your head back into the wall

  3. Place your right hand on the front of your neck as if you are trying to choke yourself. This is to see if you are activating your sternocleidomastoid muscles – the muscles on either side of your neck responsible for neck extension. Those muscles should be soft during this movement.

  4. Hold for 5 seconds

  5. Relax and repeat for 10 repetitions


8. Strengthen the middle and lower trapezius muscles

  1. Use the Hands-Free Middle Back Strengthener to easily strengthen the middle and lower trapezius and rhomboid muscles


Along with the above protocol, you need to make changes in your daily habits that include:

  • Getting up and moving around every 30 minutes if you work at a desk

  • Set up your desk to be ergonomically correct

  • Hold your smart device at eye level

  • Get more exercise

  • Drink more water

The release, stretch and strengthen movements should take less than 10 minutes a day. Your future body will thank you for it!


Enjoy!


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