The Fitness Fixer
The Fitness Fixer

Thumbs Can Show Tightness That Leads to Upper Back Pain

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Healthy body position should be a natural easy part of daily life, not something you stop work to do as an exercise.

Unhealthy body positioning is more ingrained in daily life than many people realize. How can you tell your own positioning? Watch other people. See how many spend all day rounding their shoulders forward over their work and steering wheel, then further round their shoulders to stretch by bending forward, and do the unnecesary stretch of bringing one arm across the front of their body, then exercise by bending forward for crunches and leg lifts. The result of all this chronic forward bending is overstretching the back muscles and tightening your anterior (front) muscles. Many patients who come to see me, even those who can touch their toes and put one foot behind their head are so tight that they can't comfortably stand or sit straight. This is not just a problem of looking bad. It affects the health of your joints and muscles.

The post Breasts Causing Upper Back Pain is a Myth explained how overstretched back muscles and tight anterior muscles can promote the "forward head" and bent forward position that causes so much muscle strain and damage to the discs and joints of the back, shoulder, and neck. Many people "do neck exercises" never understanding that the exercises do not solve the problem of the chest muscles being too tight, and do not address how to hold healthy position. They stretch, believing that stretching prevents sports injuries, or that it is for doing contortions, but never know that the point of healthy stretching is to restore normal resting length just to stand and move in everyday life. They stretch in ways that exacerbates the problem they started with - rounding forward.

Try this to see if you round your shoulders:

  • Use the photo, upper left, for reference.
  • While standing with arms loosely at your sides, glance down at your hands.
  • Do your thumbs face each other, as in the photo, instead of facing forward? That shows that tightness in front of your chest has rotated your arms inward (round shoulders).
  • Does it feel awkward and unnatural to pull shoulders back so that your thumbs face forward? The point is to make it comfortable to be right, not force good positioning, which makes more strain.

To fix the problem, try this:

  • Check your thumb positioning while standing comfortably.
  • Do the pectoral stretch, taught in the post Fixing Upper Back and Neck Pain.
  • Right after doing the pectoral stretch, drop your arms loosely by your sides and glance down at your thumbs again.
  • If you did the pectoral stretch right, your thumbs should now be facing more forward because you fixed the tightness that rounds shoulders and rotates arms inward.

During the day, notice your thumbs when standing to see if you are rounding. Notice other people's thumbs. Watch their upper body positioning when they sit and stand and let it remind you to use healthy straight habits so that you do not get tight in the first place.

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About the Author


M.Ed, PhD, FAWM

Dr. Bookspan is an award-winning scientist whose goal is to make exercise easier and healthier.

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