Upper Cross Syndrome

Upper Cross Syndrome (pic by grittiness.com)

If you are reading this blog, chances are that you already have gone through treatment for a chronic musculoskeletal issue that seems to be lingering and has not responded well to the treatments you have received. In this blog, I will discuss and answer the following:

  • What is Upper Cross Syndrome?
  • What does Upper Cross Syndrome feel like?
  • Is Upper Cross Syndrome curable?
  • How to fix Upper Cross Syndrome

What is Upper Cross Syndrome?

Stop for a moment and study the picture above. Upper Cross Syndrome is involved in the upper part of the body above the diaphragm where the chest bone ends. This does not immediately involve the upper extremities such as your arm or wrist but contributes to issues there which I will explain in a bit.

Upper Cross Syndrome happens over time as a result of ignored (intentionally or not), or partly-treated issues in that region. In order to understand Upper Cross Syndrome, you have to understand that in our body, we have 2 distinct types of muscles:

  1. The stabilizers are located in the torso and neck, which are designed to stabilize the neck and torso in movement.
  2. Phasic muscles or the upper and lower extremities that are designed to move the body. Phasic muscles are fast-acting muscles that are very precise with their target and get tired easily.

Imagine throwing a dart at a dartboard, your arm does the action part. It throws the dart, fast and precise and that is it. When you use your arms to sit up straight, like most people do when asked to sit up straight, it won’t last long because the arms are not meant to be the do-ers of that command. If your brain assigns the right body parts to fire in the right sequence, the job is done perfectly and lasts as long as the person is conditioned (through fitness) to hold.

The issue rises when the right body parts are fully or partly “out of commission” because of something else. That something else is always (with the exception of genetic issues) limited by injuries and lifestyle. In order to understand this further without digressing from the subject of this blog, I STRONGLY recommend you check out Brain Based Neurology and Posture on my website.

What Does Upper Cross Syndrome Feel Like?

Upper Cross Syndrome is the weakness of the deep neck flexors in the top front side of the body. This crosses over to the weak lower shoulder stabilizers in the bottom back portion. It all comes together with the tightness of the upper back muscles (upper trap) and shoulder stabilizers that elevate your scapula (levator scapula), crossing over to the front pectorals muscles. Best to take a look at the picture above to better understand this. 

The person feels tension in the neck and between the shoulder blades, restlessness, lack of energy, and the need to take deep breaths due to the slouched upper body that compresses the abdominal diaphragm (no-one talks about this one for sure). From appearance, you can note the chronic slouching posture.

Headaches and sinus issues are commonly seen among people with this presentation as well as weak arms or arms with one group of muscles being stronger than others. These individuals have elbow and wrist range of motion issues that they may not even be aware of! It is common to see heaviness of the arms or tingling down the arm(s) especially when sleeping on the sides that go away after getting up.

Is Upper Cross Syndrome Curable?

The answer is, it depends! The right treatment is NEVER isolating the area of complaint and working on just that. If movement is a concert, to improve the concert, all musicians work together to make that happen. If the metaphoric ‘pianist’ consistently messes up, the rest of the musicians try to ‘cover-up’ so they become conditioned to perform this way. That means working on the pianist is only a partial solution and not going to solve the whole problem. The rest of the musicians need to be re-trained to play their part only. That is why the thorough treatment has to include Postural Neurology and DNS (Functional Movement).

How to Fix Upper Cross Syndrome

To fix Upper Cross Syndrome, we first need to see the extent and the peripheral ‘damage’ to the non-stabilizer muscles. Then we need to see what the map of movement in the brain (aka Homunculus) looks like. You see, we are all born with a map of movement and sensation in our brain called Homunculus.

This map gets fine-tuned especially within the first 2 years of development as we progress in movement from infancy to walking. It also is capable of being modified based on our lifestyle and history of injuries.

Once we know the current state of the map in the patient with Upper Cross Syndrome, we can test to see what the functional fitness of the patient is. I am not talking about endurance or the ability to lift more weight here. I am talking about how functional or dysfunctional the patient is with basic movements. Here is a video to better understand what I am talking about:

So to fix the problem we go through a system of checks and balances to see what is weak and what is not firing. We know what the blueprint of movement is and then go and fix everything that is off. Simple and precise. No guesses and no wasting time.

Hope by reading this blog, you can see the urgency to attend to your upper cross syndrome before it impacts your whole body as it does in Layered Syndrome that I, unfortunately, see too many patients with these days.

Recommended Reading:

The Difference Between Flexibility, Hyper-mobility & Instability

Cervical Straightening: How to Alleviate Neck Pain and Improve Posture