YES OR NO? There are pros and cons to the use of posture correctors.
Physiotherapy related questions, it would seem, are like buses. You wait for ages, then all of a sudden, two identical ones turn up. Having barely registered on my radar for a couple of years, this week I had two people asking me about posture correctors. I suspect some Google related algorithm decided that ladies who work at computers may be interested, and sure enough two of those very ladies asked me the same question: are they any good?
Before answering that question though, it’s worth dispelling a very big myth. Despite what physiotherapists (myself included over the years), doctors, chiropractors, osteopaths, mothers and our old mate ‘conventional wisdom’ might tell you, there is actually very little proper evidence to show that one posture is more likely to cause pain than any other. Controversial, I know, but true all the same. Because it’s not what position you get in, but how long you spend there, that causes the problem. Hunched over a computer for ten minutes probably won’t cause you too many problems. Ten hours a day for 30 years, on the other hand, just might.
This is why many physiotherapists now say your best posture is your next one. In other words, don’t worry about the exact specifics, just keep moving frequently. I’m a huge advocate of standing desks (or at the very least putting my laptop on the ironing board!) for this very reason. It’s much harder to stand in one spot for hours than it is to sit, so you will keep moving and be less likely to settle into the one posture.
Back to our original question then, are posture correctors any good? As usual I’m going to risk getting splinters in my backside and sit on the fence a little.
Most posture correctors target the upper back, aiming to pull the shoulders back and force the wearer up straight. There are various types, from rigid corset-like set ups, to elasticated straps around the shoulders, right down to a strap of tape across the shoulder blades to pull everything back. The basic premise is that you are being forced into a ‘good’ alignment. As with all things, there are pros and cons to the approach.
The more rigid models, for example, may well dig into the skin and be quite uncomfortable, particularly for those who are quite hunched over. The elasticated models would be less so, but may loosen with time. Tape on the other hand, may cause skin reactions. But worst of all, any of the above may create something of a dependency situation.
The notion of using mechanical correction to improve alignment is certainly not new. Most obviously in the form of plaster casts for fractures. The cast is applied until the bone is sufficiently strong to bear some load, then removed to allow muscles to strengthen. If the cast is left on any longer than is necessary, muscles weaken and joints ironically, become stiff.
If one was to buy a posture corrector then, the most important thing is not to use it constantly, but rather to use it to get an idea of a better alignment. Let the straps pull you into position for short periods, then take it off and try to maintain something akin to that position without help. In doing so, the postural muscles are being made to work, rather than allowed to weaken. There are, of course, several ways to skin this particular cat. Have you ever seen footage of African women carrying baskets on their heads? It is nigh on impossible to do so without standing tall with the shoulders back. There are of course the old deportment school lessons of carrying a book on your head or standing with your hands clasped in front of you and shoulders gently pulled back, a la Kate Middleton, and the RTÉ weather ladies.
Another method that I suggest to people is to try hanging by your hands from a bar or door frame. In order to get your arms overhead the upper back has to extend, and to stop you from falling off, the back muscles have to work. A minute or two several times a day can make a big difference to posture, shoulder strength and lower back pain. Not a bad combination.
Should you then, part with your hard earned money and buy a posture corrector? It’s up to you, but don’t be fooled into thinking that it’s any better than a book on the head or some old fashioned exercise.
Andrew O’Brien is a chartered physiotherapist and the owner of Wannarun Physiotherapy and Running Clinic at Westport Leisure Park.
He can be contacted on 083 1593200 or at www.wannarun.ie.