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Pain and Posture: Tips from WashU Physical Therapy 

Daily aches and pains are something most of us strive to avoid. Whether you feel back pain from hunching over at your desk or feel soreness in your knees or feet from too much standing, many areas of pain stem from extreme repeated motions. These prolonged motions – sitting or standing for too long – are examples of repeated postures that take a toll on our bodies and is often reflected through how we carry ourselves. 

“Our bodies are programmed to defend themselves against pain,” Jennifer Miller, PT, DPT, assistant professor of physical therapy and obstetrics and gynecology at Washington University, said. “Pain provokes a protective reflex and can cause physical guarding, like turning your shoulders inward, which then causes stress on other areas of your body.” 

Miller believes that only about 50% of her patients recognize if they’re shielding themselves from pain in how they carry themselves. That could mean they compensate and put strain on other muscles to eliminate or reduce the pain. Regardless, pain impacts confidence and both the physical and mental health of people.  

“When you can’t trust your body because you think it’s failing you from pain, it takes a toll on you,” Cheryl Smith, PT, DPT, assistant professor of physical therapy and orthopaedic surgery, said. “If a dad is in pain and can’t play ball with his kids, he’s likely suffering physically and mentally.” 

Both Miller and Smith emphasize how important it is to be proactive and seek help before the pain starts or becomes intolerable. WashU Physical Therapy provides patients with personalized treatment plans that not only address current pain but also recommend preventative strategies to reduce future pain or complications. 

The key to preventing pain should be straightforward: get moving and move correctly. Find five minutes to step away from your duties to reset yourself through walking down the hall, stretching or engaging in a mindfulness activity like deep breathing or meditation. These small breaks throughout the day gets you ready for the next work activity. 

Smith also reminds her patients to be present with themselves and acknowledge how they’re feeling and what, if any, pain they feel during physical therapy sessions and in day-to-day activities. Most importantly, talk with your primary care doctor or physical therapist about what is and what isn’t working for you. 

“[PT] is a beautiful relationship between patients and clinicians,” Smith said. “We all want someone to fix us but it doesn’t work like that. Just like taking care of your mental health or diet, you have to put in the work and we’re going to do the work together to help you meet your goals.” 

Smith noted other ways you can help yourself remember to be active during the day: 

  • Make sure you fill your water bottle up and stay hydrated, because at some point, you’ll have to get up and use the restroom. 
  • Set an alarm on your computer or phone to get up and take a break. Some of us use smartwatches that buzz us, yet we become desensitized to the reminders.  
  • Put a sticky note on your computer and when you look at it, check your posture. 
  • Watch yourself on zoom and correct your posture as needed. 
  • Adjust your rearview mirror when you’re sitting in a healthy posture. As you drive, make sure you correct your posture back to a healthy position rather than adjusting your rearview mirror. 
  • When you get a break during the workday, take a break. Use this time to get up and stretch or take a quick walk around your building or neighborhood. 
  • After you complete a task, check your posture. Readjust or get up and move after you are done editing a paper or writing. 

Smith and Miller both encourage you to advocate for your health. If something doesn’t feel right, talk with your primary care doctor, and remember, you can request a referral to a physical therapist who can help address any aches and pains.  

WashU’s 8ight Ways to Wellness also provide great tips and resources to help you stay well. Learn more about WashU Physical Therapy online and find additional well-being resources on the WashU Well-being Hub