Don’t Look Down

I’ve had severe health issues that stretch back nearly a year, now. I lost an entire month of work because of it, and more days off here and there because of complications.

At one point, while COVID was at its most severe, I risked going to the ER, believing that I had either pancreatic cancer or was having a heart attack.

That’s where the issue first made itself felt. Sharp pains in my chest, on the left side. I’ve also suffered severe headaches, the type that require a dark room and total silence. I’ve reached a point where just sitting at my desk was so pain-filled I was in tears.

After losing a lot of weight, completely revamping my diet (we’re both now oil-free plant-based eaters), and trying to work more movement and exercise into my day, and after a lot of research and consults with health professionals, I’ve narrowed down the root cause of all the issues to problems with my back.

Actually, just one problem, in the end. I have cervical kyphosis. Or, in layman’s terms, a military neck. A healthy spine is curved at the neck, while a military neck is straight.

That doesn’t sound terribly significant, but it is the reason for the months of pain and lost work hours I’ve gone through. When your spine is straight, your head leans forward, instead of being supported by the neck. That puts unnatural strain on the spine, muscles, tendons and nerves. It gave me a pinched nerve in my neck that created a TMJ disorder, that makes eating painful, sitting usually painful, and gives me the blinding headaches. Another pinched nerve in the thoracic region radiated pain around to my chest, and sent me to the ER (who told me I had indigestion). The thoracic region nerve flares if I reach or try to do anything active like sweeping or cleaning, or gardening…or driving.

I’ve spent weeks using pain killers that make me groggy, and their long term use has interesting and inconvenient side effects.

If the underlying cause, the straight spine, is left untreated, my symptoms would get worse.

The traditional western treatment for kyphosis is surgery, which I considered for less than a nano second.

I’ve had chiropractic adjustments, which help with the pinched nerves, but won’t resolve the issue by themselves.

And I’ve been doing a lot of reading and research.

I had originally thought that all these issues piling up so suddenly was because I am of a certain age. But military neck is becoming more and more common in people of all ages, because it is almost always caused by poor posture.

Which shocked me, because I was trained to sit upright in my chair by a typing teacher who used a ruler to rap our knuckles if we looked at our fingers, or poked us in the back if we slouched. I’ve always been very careful to keep my back straight and my chair set ergonomically.

But sitting and looking at a screen is only half the problem. These days, we’re in a knowledge/creative economy and nearly all of us aren’t looking up and out at the world. We’re looking at phones and handhelds and laptops. We’re reading. We’re writing. We’re doing things with our hands.

We’re looking down.

And most of us are too damn busy to squeeze in much more than a few minutes of exercise each day, that might combat all that sitting and thinking.

They say that sitting is the new cigarette smoking, in health impact terms. I now believe that fully. It’s what prompted me to write this post.

A military neck can be corrected with traction, and with exercises. It takes patience and discomfort and time. But why wait until you’ve developed the problem before tackling it? Believe me, you do not want to go through the year I’ve just gone through, and the months of pain I’m still facing as I correct the problems.

No matter what your age, no matter what your health status, if you spend all day sitting at a desk and writing, or worse: all day at a day job desk and then come home to sit at another desk and write, then you’re a prime candidate for developing neck and spine issues…along with all the extremely painful and alarming secondary issues they will create.

Having a properly adjusted chair and ergonomically proper posture won’t avoid the issue. It didn’t for me, because I’m looking down all the time, not just when I’m at my desk. If you’ve got a standing desk, that will help, but the rest of your life will still gang up on you and force you to tilt your head forward a lot of the time. Even healthy activities like gardening and walking on a treadmill will cause your head to tilt downward as you examine plants or watch your treadmill’s control panel.

But don’t take my word for it. Do your own research into cervical kyphosis and military neck, the causes and the treatments. Also research neck humps, which are no longer the exclusive ailment of little old ladies. Teenagers are developing neck humps, now.

Especially, research exercises designed to improve your neck and upper back, and incorporate them into your life. They take only a few minutes a day and could help you completely avoid the nasty complications of a too-straight neck.

Try this: For the next few days, take note of how often your head is down while you focus upon something — your phone, the book you’re reading, your laptop.

Are you looking down as you read this???

When you look down, that’s more than 11 pounds of weight pulling at the base of your neck. Sometimes much more.

Imagine that weight yanking at your neck for years… See the problem?

Don’t wait to make changes and combat looking down. Not if you want to be able to write when you want, for as long as you want, for the rest of your life.

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