adaptive shortening

Chronic slouching at the desk can cause painful muscle imbalances

Your Back Pain. It Could Be Adaptive Shortening Syndrome.

Chances are you have it & what you can do to stop it.

Sherwin Nicholson | SN Health Resources |Published Oct 5, 2016. Updated Oct.4,2017

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Did you know that just by sitting motionless, you will cause your back to become worse? What doesn’t hurt now, in time will catch up with you.

If you often sit motionless (office, driving, screens) for hours at a time and have lower back problems, chances are you have adaptive shortening, and it is causing a great deal of pain.

It may not feel uncomfortable at first, but as you continue to remain seated, a dull ache develops and your body begins to become stiffer and increasingly uncomfortable.  As you move to compensate, it begins to hurt even more.

The irony of it all is that you are probably contributing it right now as you search online for help! So be careful as you search this site for support (take many breaks to stand up and move around).

It’s certainly something that I must always stay aware of in order to keep my own back healthy.  Writing articles, especially really long ones are bad for your back.  So I am always making sure that I protect myself by committing to my exercises and spending enough time away from the chair.

What is adaptive shortening and why does it matter?

Adaptive shortening can occur to any muscle group, but it is very common with lower back pain.  This happens because all of those muscles and the connective tissue along your spine that are helping you to maintain your posture have become severely imbalanced in length, strength, tension and activity.

You have muscle imbalances, really!

This imbalance typically causes a chronic shortening and weakening of muscles one side of your spine,  the smaller muscles of your back, your abdominals and hip flexor muscles.

It takes a long time for you to reach this level of discomfort (months to years) and you don’t really notice that it’s happening at all because your body is pretty tolerant to some point.  But sooner or later, your joints and nerves will let you know.  And because of all of the atrophy that has been going on, it’s going to take you some time to get over this syndrome.

Your spine can change it’s curve

If you continue to sit with poor posture, it causes the natural (balanced) S-shaped curve of your spine to become C-shaped.  With adaptive shortening, you tend to develop poorer posture and more pain.  It also causes the back to become stiffer and less flexible where the muscles have shortened.

Here is an easy way to tell you have it:

A simple way that to tell that you have adaptive shortening syndrome is when it becomes increasingly difficult to straighten up as you stand.  It can also be very uncomfortable to do so.  You tend to rely on using your arms to raise up as support.

low-back-pain-ad3

A painful cycle of shortening and weakness

Your body normally tries to keep the spine balanced on both sides by providing equal, muscular support.  Adaptive shortening prevents this from happening.  It is because opposing antagonistic muscles which are supposed to balance the other side of your spine end up performing an opposing function of excessive lengthening.  The lengthening turn further allows the cycle of shortening to occur.

In addition to this, as you sit, your glutes (butt muscles) are becoming weaker and weaker, making it even harder for you to raise yourself.

If you are finding it more and more difficult to straighten up after sitting, this is why.

Too much time spent sitting in such a compromised way keeps this painful cycle active.

Most of the working population in their 30’s and older that must sit or maintain such a compromised posture are affected. Office workers and drivers are most susceptible along with couch potatoes.

Unfortunately, some of us are guilty of practising all three activities with little opportunity in between to correct this posture.

A recipe for disaster to avoid

The imbalance from adaptive shortening is a recipe for serious long term injury. Because we often neglect or even abuse our lower backs with excessive sitting, we set ourselves up for this condition. Worse yet, we rarely find the opportunity to correct the situation because we don’t make it a priority.

weekend risks for back pain

Because we can’t see what is happening to our muscles and supportive, connective tissue, we don’t think it is as severe as it is until something more painful occurs such as a back spasm, disc herniation or muscle sprain.

Are you a weekend warrior? Then beware.

A good example is the weekend warrior that has a sudden back issue.  When they have spent most of their work week seated in this position, they then become highly active on the weekend and suddenly their back goes out with a full spasm.  The added strain of taking a chronically shortened muscle and forcing it to lengthen so quickly causes both risk of disc and muscle injury.

The added strain of taking a chronically shortened, weakened and very inactive muscle and forcing it to quickly function normally causes a major risk of disc and muscle injury.

Don’t let adaptive shortening to become the norm

What it so profoundly odd about this condition is that you tend to prefer this slouched posture more than you would like to stand (or at least sit straighter).  Standing causes these shortened muscles to fatigue when straightened and you prefer to rest instead back into this compromised position.

If you are exercising too much or actively moving with shortened muscles, they will tire and cause pain. Use caution as you may mistakenly continue exercising with these symptoms while they may feel manageable.

Surefire clues that you have adaptive shortening

back-pain

  1. You know you have adaptive shortening if you struggle to stand up straight after sitting for a long time. Your motions are similar to a much older senior getting up very slowly due to aging.
  2. Your posture becomes progressively compromised, simulating the appearance of someone with that of a slouched back or hunch rather than standing perfectly upright as you used to.
  3. Symptoms of stiffness and aches are common. They do diminish over time but end up returning whenever you go back to your way of sitting.
  4. You have a persistent dull ache in your lower back.  Arching your back brings some slight relief.

Why it takes time to correct

It becomes harder to transition out of this posture without adequate help because both sets of muscles as mentioned are not only short but weak.

These muscles have shrunken and have lost their flexibility. They are very slow to lengthen on command such as moving from a sitting or crouched position to standing.

The same effect happens when moving down to a crouched position from standing. 

Another way to test yourself

standing too long

 

The Deep Squat Rest is a test exercise which I demonstrate in the back pain eBook to prove another example of adaptive shortening.

Try this squat to see if you have adaptive shortening syndrome that leads to back pain.

You might notice the following issues:

  1. Cannot squat down low with feet flat on the floor
  2. Can squat almost all the way but need to raise your heels
  3. Falling forward or backwards while trying to squat
  4. Hip and lower back is sore in this position
  5. Need to use your arms to lift yourself out of this position
  6. Can squat but not able to bring your stomach up against your thighs

Most of us should be able to squat deeply, but because of adaptive shortening, these imbalances cause an otherwise stable and flexible person to fall over or feel uncomfortable when trying this exercise initially.

If you can’t get into a deep squat, it is because supportive lower back, hip and leg muscles have shortened. The chances are that if you have visited this site due to back issues, you will find this test difficult to perform.

squatting and back pain

Deep squatting is a seated posture that many cultures around the world practice simply as a comfortable way to sit.  It is encouraged from a very early age and practised well into the senior years.  Western or European culture rarely adopt this posture.

However, where we all witness deep squatting is with our very young toddlers.

They can both quickly sit down into and raise back up out of this position with ease.

this-toddler-has-no-back-pain

When you watch a toddler explore and play, you can see that they will actually prefer to squat down this way using only the strength of their legs to lower and raise themselves.  They rarely use their hands for support.

Adults, those especially with lower back pain will find this very challenging to perform unassisted and as quickly as a toddler can.

Ideally, we should be practising this type of movement as it helps to correct this form of shortening.

The goal of the exercise is to demonstrate where your imbalances have affected your posture and what you should be able to do once it is corrected.

What you can do about it

Correcting this imbalance takes time and is not solved overnight. Many areas require reconditioning over time.

To begin rebalancing, you will need to determine if your pelvic tilt is either neutral, anterior or posterior.  How you sit and your body weight can affect your tilt.  Hip flexor and quadricep stretches can help to correct and excessive anterior pelvic tilt while hamstrings stretches will help to correct a posterior tilt.

It is essential to sit using the posture of a neutral S-curve while relying as little as possible on using your back rest.  Although this will not fully correct adaptive shortening, it is an easy way to begin to reverse your imbalances.

By focusing on these corrections with an exercise plan, you will be able to stabilise and protect yourself during prolonged sitting. The bottom line is much less pain, soft tissue damage, and improved mobility.

The bottom line is much less pain, soft tissue damage, and improved mobility.

You will be all the better for it and will be able to sit safer and without the same discomfort as before.

Test yourself for adaptive shortening while learning to correct it here. Begin with the Deep Squat Rest, and you will notice the difference for yourself.

If you liked this article, you’ll also like:

The Deep Squat Rest Test

When Your Back Hurts at the Office

Help for Your Tight Hip Flexors

References:

2. Exercise therapy for chronic nonspecific low-back pain.
Best Pract Res Clin Rheumatol. 2010 Apr;24(2):193-204. doi: 10.1016/j.berh.2010.01.002.
3. Muscular contracture as a component of low back pain: evaluation criteria and significance of relaxant therapy.
Int J Clin Pharmacol Res. 1986;6(6):501-7.Fassina A, Rubinacci A, Tessari L.

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