Do Posture Braces Actually Work?
Q: Will a back brace help fix my posture?
Work life has changed dramatically since the start of the pandemic – 56% of American workers are now fully or mostly working from home. And it’s not changing anytime soon, as surveys have shown that enthusiasm for remote work has only increased as the pandemic has stretched on. In fact, 41% of workers now say they prefer to remain fully remote.
But let’s face it, none of us really have the most ideal ergonomic home office setup. And as a Brookfield chiropractor, trust me when I say that so much time looking down at laptops and sitting on couches, beds and recliners is taking a toll on our collective posture.
Posture braces promise to counteract the inevitable postural problems that come with working on a laptop all day – but do they actually work?
What are posture correctors?
If you’ve spent any time researching methods for fixing poor posture, you’ve almost certainly seen them: neoprene or spandex butterfly-shaped braces that wrap around your shoulders and retract your scapulas (or shoulder blades).
We’ve talked before about how important scapular retraction is – both in the gym and at your desk. Keeping the shoulder blades in their correct position allows the joints of the shoulder, ribs and upper back to function optimally and relies less on the surrounding muscles and ligaments for support and stabilization.
But although rounded, slouching shoulders are indeed a sign of bad posture, they’re just an effect of upper cross syndrome – the medical term for the combination of postural abnormalities caused by slouching in front of a laptop all day. Upper cross syndrome, at its root, is a combination of weak upper back and neck flexor musculature along with tight chest and trapezius muscles. It’s this muscle imbalance that leads to forward head carriage and protracted shoulders.
So unfortunately, the answer to the question above is no. While a posture brace may help bring your shoulders back while you’re wearing it, it won’t correct the underlying muscle balance problems at the root of upper cross syndrome – and can even make things worse long-term.
“Use it or lose it!”
The biggest problem with long-term use of posture braces is that they cause atrophy of the lower trapezius, latissimus dorsi, and rhomboid muscles in your upper back. Just as exercise can cause an adaptive increase in muscle mass, lack of use can cause a loss of muscle mass. If your muscles aren’t being used, there’s no reason for your body to maintain them. This sets the stage for the loss of myofibrillar contractile proteins, regulatory proteins, and metabolic resources within muscle cells.
Additionally, when muscles aren’t engaged for extended periods of time, the nerves that provide the signal to contract become inhibited – or down-regulated – further causing those muscles to lose their ability to provide stabilization and protection to the structures in your upper back. This is what’s known as “the mind-muscle connection”, or proprioceptive awareness.
Muscles are designed to subtly contract and relax continuously throughout your day, stabilizing the joints they cross. So while a posture brace may help while it is on, when we remove that support the underlying posture muscles are rendered even less capable of doing their job than they were to begin with. The result is that your shoulders will likely go right back to their rounded state and you’ll be even more prone to further injury, musculoskeletal changes, functional deficiencies and – by default – more pain.
This tendency for braced muscles and the nerves that control them to become atrophied and inhibited is why the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health generally recommends against the long-term use of back supports, reserving them for only the first few weeks after a severe back injury while the area is healing.
So What Actually Improves Posture?
Just like a posture brace won’t magically solve all of your posture problems, there’s no one single trick to fixing your posture. Correcting upper cross syndrome and the postural problems that comes with it means stretching muscles that are tight (your SCM, scalene, and pec muscles), strengthening muscles that are weak (your lats, rhomboids and cervical flexor muscles), and correcting alignment with chiropractic care.
Stretch the muscles that are tight
To stretch the scalenes and SCM’s, reach across your body and grasp your collarbone (use your right hand to hold the left collar bone). Next, pull down gently on the collar bone and then lean your neck back and to the opposite side (lean back and to the right if holding the left collar bone). Hold this stretch for at least 30 seconds, then repeat on the opposite side.
To stretch the muscles in your chest, you’ll need a doorway. Lift one arm and bend your elbow at a 90 degree angle. Place your arm against the door frame and gently lean forward. Hold this stretch for at least 30 seconds and then repeat on the opposite side.
These stretches can be performed throughout the day as needed.
Strengthen the muscles that are weak
Of course, just stretching isn’t enough. The muscles that are weak need to be strengthened if they’re going to support your upper body in the correct position.
Here are three exercises to target your lats, rhomboids and cervical flexor muscles:
Resistance Band Lat Pulldowns: Anchor a resistance band overhead and start with arms extended in front of you above shoulder level, grasping an end in each hand. While maintaining a straight spine, pull your elbows back just below shoulder level, squeezing your shoulder blades together. Slowly return to start position. Don’t allow your shoulders to round forward. Repeat for three sets of 10 reps.
Resistance Band Standing Rows: Begin standing with your shoulders pull back. Anchor a resistance band around a door handle, grasping each end with arms slightly extended. Pull your elbows back just past your body with a rowing motion. Simultaneously squeeze your shoulder blades together and contract your mid-back muscles. Slowly return to start position. Don’t allow your shoulders to round forward. Repeat for three sets of 10 reps.
Deep Cervical Flexor Strengthening: Laying on your back, bring your chin as close to your neck as possible and lift your head slightly off the floor. Concentrate on using the muscles in the front of your neck. Hold for 10 seconds and repeat for 10 reps.
Using RockTape For Postural Correction
All of that said, if you really feel like you need some external support during your workday to re-establish the neuromuscular pathways necessary for proper posture, RockTape is the way to go. Unlike bracing that completely immobilizes muscles, kinesio taping complements your muscles, improves proprioceptive feedback and creates resistance if your muscles aren’t functioning correctly. It’s basically a gentle tug on your muscles to encourage them to do what they’re supposed to do.
At Ascent Chiropractic we exclusively use the RockTape waterproof brand of kinesio tape because it can provide support for up to a week and will stay on even after you’ve showered. Developed in a research lab, RockTape was designed to stay put even under the toughest circumstances, which is why it’s the kinesio tape of choice for pro athletes.
Here’s how to apply it to encourage proper posture:
How Can A Chiropractor Help?
Finally, let’s make one thing perfectly clear: you can work on correcting your posture at home as much as you want, but unless your spine, rib cage and shoulders are aligned and moving like they’re supposed to, you’ll never fix what’s going on (posturally) in your upper back and neck. Make sure your spine and pelvis are aligned and improving your upper body posture will be much easier.
Pelvic alignment is an overlooked part of posture, and it’s often the first place we’ll look when examining your spine. Your pelvis is similar to the foundation on a house; when your pelvis tilts, your shoulders, upper back and neck follow.
If you’re a patient at Ascent Chiropractic, you’ve probably heard me say that your body isn’t dumb – if your body is causing certain muscle groups to be tight and stiff, there’s probably a reason for it! Correcting alignment in your spine and pelvis allows the supporting muscles to return to their optimally-functioning state.
The Bottom Line
There’s no single product you can buy or exercise that you can do that will magically correct your posture – in fact, like in the case of posture braces, they can make the problem even worse if used long-term. However, by paying attention to your workplace ergonomic setup, correcting the muscle imbalances associated with upper cross syndrome and getting adjusted on a regular basis, you can fix your posture.
At Brookfield chiropractor Ascent Chiropractic we correct problems in the spine using low-force chiropractic techniques combined with the best of soft tissue myofascial therapy to get results that are unmatched anywhere. If you’re in the Brookfield, Waukesha, Wauwatosa, New Berlin or Milwaukee areas and suffering from the effects of poor posture, we’d love to help you get started with chiropractic care. Make an appointment by calling 262-345-4166 or schedule an appointment with our online scheduling app.