Prevent Pain with Body Awareness

Woman with back pain

Posture, alignment and corrective exercise are hot topics in the health and wellness field. It is important to understand what it means when we tell someone that their posture needs some work, their body is out of alignment or they need special exercises to correct the problem areas. Most people understand that if they sit slumped in their chair for 8 to 10 hours a day, rarely take a break, and don’t do enough general exercise, they will sooner or later have pain. It is more difficult when someone who is fit, active and exhibits generally good posture begins to feel tightness or pain. What do we blame it on?

Good, natural alignment of the body is relative. Perfect posture does not exist. Health professionals are taught that when a person is standing, if their ear sits over their shoulder, shoulder over the hip, hip over the knee and knee over the ankle, that that is perfect alignment. But for who?

Only for the person standing perfectly still. Bodies, even those that are standing and sitting for periods of time are generally in some kind of movement. If a person sits in perfect posture at their desk, with their feet on the floor, hips slightly higher than the knees, low back supported by a perfectly sized lumbar roll, chin tucked, shoulders relaxed, wrists, forearms, and elbows in neutral positions, they are usually also typing, reading, mousing, talking on the phone, and don’t forget breathing. These perfectly positioned people can still have pain. There are many other factors involved, like whether or not the person takes proper breaks, exercises on a regular basis, what their stress levels are and how they cope with life in general. There can also be underlying asymmetries in the body due to past injuries, surgeries or trauma that can create tightness or tension, even when someone is in good postural alignment. Let’s explore this last idea.

Poor posture is only one cause of imbalance in the body. If you slouched your way through high school and college and then on into your first desk job, you may be one of these people. The front of you is tight and the back of you is stretched out. Muscles that remain in shortened, tight positions over time, yep just like mom said, they stick that way and get weak. The stress on the body, including joints and even organs, increases, and pain or injury may develop as a result. A person can be taught exercises to correct the short, tight muscles in the front, and the stretched out weaker ones in the back as well as how to sit properly to decrease postural strain.

Asymmetries and alignment issues can also be caused by things like injuries, surgeries, illnesses and stress. The body, in its attempt to heal itself, will tighten and immobilize an area of injury, causing the connective tissue to adhere, shorten and dehydrate. The body can be left with areas that stop being able to contribute to normal movement causing other areas to compensate, leading to abnormal strain on muscles, joints and organs. You can sit up as straight as you want for the rest of your life but you will not fix this kind of alignment issue with perfect posture.

When the connective tissue (fascia) tightens, adheres and dehydrates in response to an injury, surgery or other trauma, the problem can be more significant than a cause that is simply postural. In this instance, corrective exercises are prescribed for part of the body that, compared to the other side, is restricted, tight, or painful, causing asymmetries, imbalance and poor alignment. The body is evaluated by a personal trainer, physical therapist or other trained professional and then the client is taught how to test themselves for asymmetries and use specific corrective exercises to balance them out. These exercises are done on one side of the body only, to help correct or balance the system.

How do I know I need this kind of specific corrective exercise? Most of us know when we have pain or dysfunction, but have trouble noticing before that. Most people live in this fashion, meaning that we only know we need help after something starts to hurt (the red flag). Which brings me to one of the most important pieces of health, wellness and healing; awareness. Practicing body awareness will help you to pay attention at the yellow flag stage. If you can catch a problem earlier, when it is just a slight tightness, strain or pull, you will be able to regain balance, symmetry and alignment with a few simple exercises. By using your awareness, checking in with your body and the way it feels as you move, breathe and exercise, you will find the flags before they are red, and go a long way toward preventing injury.

So yes, listen to mom and sit up straight, exercise more and manage your stress, but even more importantly, practice body awareness by paying attention to the body’s signals when they are mild. Ask your health and wellness professional to help you find and treat asymmetries with a few corrective exercises before you have pain and you will have the preventive tools for a lifetime.