Dangers of Rounded Shoulders and How to Fix Them
What are Rounded Shoulders?
The condition of rounded shoulders is when your shoulder alignment favors forward. Your upper back may round out as well, and your pelvis may be pushed forward, giving your head a downward, forward-favoring tilt. An example of someone with rounded shoulders is Mr. Burns from The Simpsons – hunched over with his shoulders and head jutting out in front of his hips.
How Do You Get Rounded Shoulders?
- Do I sit for most of the day?
- Do I text constantly?
- Do I cradle my phone between my head and shoulder a lot?
- Am I on my computer/laptop for hours at a time?
- Do I tend to look down instead of straight ahead?
- Do I feel tightness in the back of my legs and my butt?
- Do my neck and shoulders constantly feel tense and strained?
- Do I tend to focus on chest exercises and not back exercises?
- Do I skip stretching?
If you answered “yes” to all or most of those questions, there is a high probability that you suffer from some degree of rounded shoulders, but there are a couple of easy ways to know for sure.
Do I Have Rounded Shoulders?
There are three easy tests that you can do at home to determine whether or not you have rounded shoulders.
Knuckle Test: Stand in a forward-facing, natural position in front of a mirror. Don’t force yourself to take a stance that you think is “correct.” Just stand naturally. Look at your hands and determine which way your knuckles are facing. If your knuckles are facing to the sides, you should be okay. If your knuckles are favoring the inside and towards the front of your body, you might have rounded shoulders.
Chin Test: Stand in a natural position and have a friend take a picture of your side profile. Take a few pictures to be sure. Look at where your chin is. If your chin is up slightly and aligns with your chest, then that’s a good sign. If your chin favors forward and juts out past your chest followed by your head, this is a sign that you might have rounded shoulders.
Earlobe test: Stand in a natural position in front of a mirror. Your earlobe should be over the center of your shoulder while your shoulder is over the center of your hip bone. If your earlobe, shoulder and hip bone aren’t aligned you may have rounded shoulders.
The best way to know if you have rounded shoulders is to visit your family chiropractor.
Dangers of Rounded Shoulders
Having rounded shoulders can present real-life dangers for your long-term health.
Strain and Pain: The most common side effect of rounded shoulders and one you might be already experiencing is strain and pain. Rounded shoulders put a great deal of stress in the trapezoids, upper back, and neck muscles. The results at the lowest end are muscle aches, and at the other end, you might suffer from pain that needs medical intervention. Rounded shoulders can also promote headaches, which can easily ruin a productive day.
Headaches: Continuing with the point above, the tension from overused and tight shoulder and neck muscles can trigger common tension headaches. These headaches can then become more severe, leading to migraine or cluster headaches. If not directly, rounded shoulders can cause headaches indirectly. As detailed in a study published in the Journal of Chiropractic Medicine, rounded shoulders often promote a condition called forward head carriage. Again, this places a great deal of stress on the neck and shoulder muscles, which in turn trigger headaches.
Arthritis: Rounded shoulders and arthritis are involved in a vicious cycle with one fueling the other. The wear and tear that comes as a part of the behaviors that promote rounded shoulders such as constant smartphone usage and working at a computer all day trigger the inflammation that causes arthritis. Once arthritis begins to set in and the inflammation worsens, patients experience a dramatic decrease in the range of motion and usage of the shoulders. In order to avoid the pain associated with arthritis, patients will remain in a hunched, rounded shoulders posture.
Disc Herniation: We take for granted just how heavy our heads actually are. This weight is what the muscles and vertebrae in the neck must stabilize and move around with ease. For those with rounded shoulders, a domino-effect can occur. As mentioned above, rounded shoulders overwork the neck and shoulder muscles while weakening the chest muscles. Eventually, there is a forward pull of the head and soon your neck is overloaded. From this, it’s common for a disc herniation to occur. This is when the surrounding pressure pushes a disc out of alignment and on to a nerve. The result in severe pain that can become chronic, or lasting more than three months.
Degenerative Disc Disease: The same mechanisms mentioned above can also lead to a condition known as degenerative disc disease. Due to the poor posture of rounded shoulders, and potentially forward head, it’s not just your neck that is taking on all that weight; your spine is also trying to compensate for the overworked and weakened muscles. Eventually, this wear and tear can impact your spine, particularly the cervical spine, or area of the neck. This means the discs in your neck are on a fast track to breakdown, resulting in pain that can be severe, burning, and tingling. Some people even complain of numbness.
Degenerative Joint Disease: Also called osteoarthritis, degenerative joint disease is the result of overuse of the protective cartilage that surrounded the ends where two bones meet. What might start out as stiffness and an occasional headache can eventually become a limited range of movement and chronic pain. As we discussed above, rounded shoulders put unnecessary strain on muscle tissue, vertebrae, and joints alike, leading to high levels of inflammation which break down the cartilage and lead to degenerative joint disease.
Postural Distortions: Having rounded shoulders can promote postural distortions throughout the body. Remember that your body is similar to a chain-linked fence in that if something happens at the top, it’s going to be felt at the bottom too. Having rounded shoulders can increase your chances of developing conditions such as forward head posture, pelvic tilt, and knock-knee (inward facing knees).
Increased Risk of Serious Injury: If you have rounded shoulders long enough, you are most likely going to develop postural distortions, and this will dramatically increase your risk of injury. Postural distortions place your muscles in an uncompromising position where too much stress is being placed in one area. This will increase your risk for strains, breaks, and tears.
How to Fix Rounded Shoulders
Think you have rounded shoulders? Don’t worry! There are steps you can take at home to correct the problem. Being more aware of your posture and limiting activities that promote rounded shoulders such as texting and sitting for too long is a great first step. You can also perform the following stretches a few times a week to help correct the issue.
Cervical Extension Stretch
How it Helps: When we get neck pain, we tend to feel it in the back of the neck, around where the spine and skull meet. In order to rid ourselves of neck pain, and rounded shoulders, we have to stretch the back and sides of the neck, where the pain is occurring, but we also need to release muscle tension in the front. The Cervical Extension exercise stretches the front of the neck to provide a complete release of muscular tension.
Instructions: Start by standing or sitting. Your hand and neck should be in a natural location, looking straight ahead. Open mouth widely and extend your head back until you’re looking at the ceiling. Protract your teeth to close mouth. Hold each stretch for 20 seconds. Perform twice a day.
Watch our how-to-video: Cervical Extension Stretch.
Cervical Anchor Stretch
How it Helps: The neck is going to be the center of your tension and a common area for pain. The Cervical Anchor exercise helps to release tension and promote flexibility in the neck muscles.
Instructions: Sit with your back straight, looking forward, and one arm anchored to your chair. With your other arm, reach for the top, back part of your head on the side of your anchored arm. Allow the weight of your hand that is on your head to stretch your lateral neck muscles. Hold for 20 seconds, and repeat on the opposite side.
Watch our how-to video: Cervical Anchor Stretch.
Upper Back Stretch
How it Helps: Remember how rounded shoulders push your shoulder musculature forward? This forward pull will then tug on the upper back muscles, giving you that puffed-up back appearance. After stretching out the neck, you’ll want to release the tension built up in the upper back. This will help to alleviate the strain in the back, and tension in the shoulder blades.
Instructions: Stand up with your arms straight out at chest height. Keep arms fully extended with elbows straight. Cross your forearms and interlock your hands with both thumbs facing down. Slowly reach forward and lower your head while stretching your arms in front of you. You should feel a stretch between your shoulder blades. Hold for 20 seconds, performing two times daily.
Watch our how-to video: Upper Back Stretch.
Doorway Pec Stretch
How it Helps: Tight chest muscle exacerbate rounded shoulders by contributing to the pull of the shoulder muscles forward. Supine pectoral stretching can loosen chest muscles, and alleviate the forward pull.
Instructions: Stand in a doorway. Place your forearm on the doorway at about 90 degrees at the elbow. Step forward with the opposite side. Stick your chest out a little and pull on your arm. Hold for 20 seconds.
Watch our how-to video: Doorway Pec Stretch.
How it Helps: Rows are great for strengthening the back and restoring proper length-tension relationships between muscles.
Instructions: Stand facing the wall with your shoulder at an approximately 90-degree flexion. Your elbows should be straight with the thumbs up. Attach an appropriate resistance band to the wall, then pull the resistance band towards you to extend shoulders. Your elbows will bend as your fists come to hip. Focus on squeezing the lower part of shoulder blades together, and hold for three seconds, then slowly relax.
Watch our how-to video: Row Stretch.
How it Helps: One of the easiest and most convenient stretches to do on our list is the Brugger with Chin Tuck. It works against the forward flexion of the shoulder muscles by activating the extensor-based muscle groups, thereby temporarily “turning off” the flexion-based muscles (neck, shoulders, chest).
Instructions: Sit straight, looking forward, on the edge of a chair with your legs apart at a 45-degree angle. Roll your shoulders back and twist your arms out, with your palms facing upwards.
Watch our how-to video: Brugger Stretch.
Hip Bridge Stretch
How it Helps: If you work a job where you’re sitting for most of the day, there’s a high risk of weak glutes and hamstring muscles with over-worked quadriceps compensating. You want to balance the workload and strength between front-facing and back-facing muscle groups. The bridge exercise will help strengthen weak glutes and hamstrings.
Instructions: Lie in a supine position. Bend both knees with your feet flat on the floor. Your feet should be shoulder-width apart, and your arms should be down and to the side with palms on the floor. Lift the hips off the floor until the bridge position is achieved. Maintain a straight line between the shoulders and knees. Hold for eight seconds.
Watch our how-to video: Hip Bridge Stretch.
Wall Angels Stretch
How it Helps: Wall Angels help in two key ways: First, they loosen and reduce tension in the tight chest and front deltoids (shoulder muscles). Second, they strengthen the back muscles and posterior deltoids to exert an even pull between front and back muscle groups.
Instructions: Stand with your heels 3 to 5 inches away from the wall at shoulder width apart. Make sure that your glutes, upper back, and head are in contact with the wall. Place your arms up in a “goal post” position with your wrists flat, and no shoulder shrugging.
Watch our how-to video: Wall Angels Stretch.
Shoulder Square Shrugs Stretch
How it Helps: Shoulder Shrugs are an excellent way to directly address issues with the shoulder. Shrugs help to loosen the front, side, and back shoulder area along with the upper and lower trapezoids. People tend to notice an instant improvement in range of motion after performing shrugs.
Instructions: Sit or stand upright with your back straight and your head facing forward. Start by lifting the shoulders straight up. Move the shoulders back, shrugging the shoulder blades together. Bring the shoulders down, and then forward to complete the square. Make the squares as large as possible, and do not roll the shoulders forward.
Watch our how-to video: Shoulder Square Shrugs Stretch.
Curl Up Stretch
How it Helps: Not to be confused with a Sit-Up, the Curl-Up is more focused on the upper abdominals and is sometimes called a crunch. A weak core musculature may worsen rounded shoulders, so it’s important to strengthen your core for proper posture.
Instructions: Lie in a supine position. Extend one leg to the floor while you bend the other leg with your foot flat on the floor and heel at the approximate joint line of the knee of the straight leg. Both hands are placed under the lumbar spine to maintain a neutral spine. Perform a curl up until the lower border of the shoulder blades are off the floor approximately two inches. Hold this position for eight seconds.
Watch our how-to video: Curl Up Stretch.
Thoracic Extension Stretch
How it Helps: This mid-back stretch is excellent for re-establishing proper posture while reducing the tension from rounded shoulders. You may notice an improvement in your overhead movements.
Instructions: Place a foam roller on the ground. Lay face up with foam roller horizontally under your upper back. Stay in this position with the roller for 30 seconds and work up to 2 minutes. To accentuate the stretch, lift your pelvis off of the floor slightly. Let your neck extend so the chin is pointed towards the ceiling. Raise hands above head and let gravity take them to the floor. Hold each stretch for 2 minutes, and do this twice a day.
Watch our how-to video: Thoracic Extension Stretch.
Latissimus Dorsi Stretch
How it Helps: In combination with stretching the direct problem areas (shoulders and chest), you must also stretch the entire upper body. The latissimus dorsi-focused stretch is the next in-line stretch, helping alleviate tension level by level down the back.
Instructions: Stand facing a table. Take one big step away, with arms straight above head. Place feet wider than shoulder-width apart. Pull belly in supine and slowly flex forward until wrists are resting on the table. Shift hips back until they are no longer over heels. Rest into the stretch until the back is parallel to the floor. Shift body weight to each side to allow for a deeper stretch on each side. Hold each stretch for 20 seconds, performing twice a day.
Watch our how-to video: Latissimus Dorsi Stretch.
Dying Bug Stretch
How it Helps: Our final exercise is going to focus on the entire core: upper abdominals, lower abdominals, obliques, lower back, and glutes. The Dying Bug is an excellent exercise for improving strength and overall posture.
Instructions: Lie in a supine position with your hips and knees bent to 90 degrees. Your arms should be flexed to 90 degrees with fingers toward the ceiling. Hold the dying bug position for 8 seconds. Flex right shoulder to 180 degrees (bicep to shoulder) with a straight elbow and extend left leg until your heel is 2 inches off the floor. Hold this for 4 seconds. Return to the dying bug position, hold for 8 seconds, flex left shoulder to 180 degrees, extend right leg, and hold for 4 seconds. Arms and legs should never touch the floor. Repeat three times each on arm and leg g to make a set of 6.
Watch our how-to video: Dying Bug Stretch.
Doing these stretches and exercises will strengthen your neck, shoulders and back so they stay aligned and prevent posture issues in the future. This program is important to do on a weekly basis, especially if you sit at a desk or text on a phone all day. Perform the rounded shoulders tests on a monthly basis to ensure everything is staying aligned. Stop if you feel pain. If you ever feel pain from doing these stretches call your doctor. If you would like more information please call Ravenswood Chiropractic & Wellness Center at (773) 878-7330.
Dr. DeFabio is a highly regarded chiropractor in Chicago who focuses on helping his patients achieve optimal health and wellness. He takes a holistic approach to care, treating symptoms and addressing underlying issues to promote long-term healing. Dr. DeFabio is passionate about empowering his patients to take control of their health and live their best lives. You can find him surfing, skateboarding, and volunteering at the Lakeview Food Pantry when he’s not in the office.