A number of studies on how we perceive beauty have shown that we tend to find faces of great symmetry to be the most attractive. But does that same rule apply to the entire body? And if so, what is the anthropological reasoning for that? More importantly, what does symmetry tell us about our health and what steps can we take to improve it?
The Sexy Side
Imagine you are a male wolf, out in the wilderness, fervently seeking a mate. While your sudden zeal might be motivated by a hormonal shift in your body, evolutionarily speaking, your brain is seeking a way to procreate, and only the finest female wolf will do. This is because you, the wolf, are hardwired with a desire to create a future pack of strong, healthy wolves who will not be predisposed to disease, premature degeneration or general weakness; not only a bloodline that will perpetuate the existence of your species, but one that will help it strengthen and thrive.
What, then, defines the characteristics of a specimen, most desirable for procreation? There are findings suggesting that body symmetry and a proportionate physique are signs of biological fitness. This means that to our lone and lustful wolf, subtle asymmetries in a potential mate might reflect poor nutrition, poor development, overexposure to environmental stressors or some genetic flaw, thus making the asymmetrical choice an undesirable one.
This concept easily translates to the human species in simple terms; body symmetry equates to sex appeal. In looking at the sex symbols of most cultures, I think this fact is clearly demonstrated. However, if this was my point, it would make for a horribly defeating and demoralizing blog post. My actual point is that while we cannot all be the next sex icon of our generation, it is possible to make changes to our body symmetry and we should strongly consider doing so. Not only is a balanced physique important for our sexual attractiveness, it is critical for our physiological functioning.
The Personal Side
To make everyone feel better, most people exhibit rather subtle asymmetries, and most observers do not even notice those subtle asymmetries. As with many visual stimuli, our brains adjust the image coming in through our eyes and correct it to suit our perceptive expectations. It is predominantly therapists trained in postural analysis and biomechanics (and maybe some visual artists), who pick up on the tiniest of bodily details. And that’s where I come in.
I positively love postural assessment. It is endlessly interesting and often very revealing to clients who have been previously unaware of the distortions potentially affecting their bodies in a negative way. In a world of constant new technologies, it is nice to know that simple human observation is still a powerful evaluative tool. It is also a welcome reminder of a basic principle of human anatomy that too often gets disregarded; form determines function. Allow me to give you a personal anecdote to highlight how closely form and function relate.
An Example Out of My Own Mouth
Since I was an early teen, I had an increasingly apparent irregularity on the left side of my face, and with it, an increasing self-awareness of how it made me look. I became terrified of having my picture taken and would refuse to smile in photographs, as I knew my smile only exacerbated the distortion. As I started to understand human anatomy more and more, I realized that these distortions do not just happen; they have a cause and they have a potential to be corrected.
I now have a strong inkling as to some of the sources of my particular distortion: a fascial pull that started as I pushed through my mother’s birth canal, a 4mm lower leg length inequality that alters my entire skeletal structure and a shift in my cranial and facial bones due to my particular movement habits. If you were to look in my mouth, you would even see a twisting at the back of my throat. I now know that this most likely demonstrates an imbalance in my pharyngeal constrictors.
But besides my displeasure with my own aesthetics, I have had a number of systemic symptoms for decades that I partially associate with this cranial/facial shift: poor oxygen intake, sporadic fatigue, IBS, adrenal issues, dizziness, motion sickness, a deep inner ear itch on my left side and regularly congested sinuses. So, I am currently conducting a very expensive experiment on myself.
Almost 3 months ago now, I had a lightweight orthodontal piece installed in my mouth. It is slowly creating expansion in my cranial and facial bones. In just this short amount of time, I have experienced a change in my breathing, a complete cessation of that nagging itch deep in my ear and I no longer wake up with sinus congestion, as everything is draining more efficiently. Those are some of the physiological effects of this experiment, but the expansion is also causing a cosmetic effect (i.e. higher cheek bones and a wider smile). In keeping this mouthpiece on for another 8 months to a year, I am hoping to find that in creating a more symmetrical cranium, my body’s physiology will continue to be altered in a beneficial way.
To highlight the ability of a trained eye to notice minor anatomical shifts, I would like to mention a therapist friend whom I see every other week. Each time I see her, she practically shouts, “Oh my gosh! Look at your jaw! That’s amazing!” Another therapist friend who had not seen me for over a year, noticed a change in my facial structure from about 30 feet away. He walked up to me and proclaimed, “Wow! You look totally different. What did you do?” On the other hand, my oldest brother (the MD), who has known me my whole life, just said, “You don’t look any different to me.”…………whatever!
This is not meant as a criticism to my brother, but it is interesting to note that extensive training in the field of human anatomy, or for that matter the sheer closeness of being siblings, does not necessarily equate to proficiency in the observation of posture and biomechanics.
The point here is that small asymmetries can be indicative of major systemic issues and, under the guidance of a trained eye, even small shifts to correct those asymmetries can dramatically alter one’s symptoms and improve physiological functioning.
The Brainy Side
Ok, ok, I can tell you are still not convinced. So, let’s take one of the most common postural distortions I see; one that I find particularly egregious for its contribution to an asymmetrical physique, but more so for its creation of biomechanical and physiological dysfunction. THE FORWARD HEAD POSTURE!! Oh, the horror!!
There are so many ramifications to this postural distortion, I barely know where to begin. For every inch of forward head movement, your head becomes 10 lbs heavier. At the most superficial level, this means that small muscles like the suboccipitals at the base of your skull, and a host of other head-supporting muscles, get over-lengthened and eventually develop brutal trigger points from straining to support this increased weight. This also means that those supporting muscles are now so distracted with the task of holding up your head, they can no longer efficiently perform their other functions. At a bare minimum, this translates to neck pain, headaches and incomplete range of motion of the neck and shoulders. At worst, the result may be disc herniations, dural tube tightening, spinal cord compression, thoracic outlet syndrome, vertebral artery compression, a whole host of symptoms related to nervous system over-facilitation and eventually central sensitization and chronic pain.
Symptoms of a Forward Head Posture
- Muscle Pain & Tension
- Muscle Imbalance
- Muscle Spasms
- Neck Pain
- Dowager’s Hump
- Limited ROM
- Compressed Discs
- Compressed Vertebrae
- Nerve Impingements
- Cervical Stenosis
- Bone Spurs
- Disc Degeneration
- Thoracic Outlet Symptoms (e.g. numbness/tingling)
- Carpal Tunnel Symptoms
- Shoulder Pain
- Rotator Cuff Issues
- Arm Pain
- Mid-Back Pain
- Low-Back Pain
- Digestive Issues
- Vision Problems
- Hearing Problems
- Sinus Issues
- Breathing Issues
- Mood Disorders
The Titular Theme – Brainstem Function
While a C1 distortion can occur in any neck, those with a forward head posture are particularly vulnerable. C1 is your first cervical vertebra; the connecting point between your skull and your cervical spine. There is a school of thought amongst manual therapists, namely chiropractors, who believe the position of C1 is so critically important, that if it is in its proper position, everything else in the body will function optimally: heart rate, respiration, nervous system response, hormones, digestion, reproduction, cognition, memory and mood stabilization, just to name a few.
As an interesting aside, I have a few colleagues who have dissected a number of human cadavers. Through their small amount of experience, they definitely found a correlation between a rotated C1 and a cause of death related to degenerative brain disease (e.g. dementia, Alzheimer’s). But why would this be?
We could make this way more complicated, but the short of it is, if C1 is out of alignment, the vertebral arteries get compressed and the vertebral veins may collapse completely, slowing and/or stifling blood flow into and out of the brain. All manner of precious nerve structures which make up the brachial plexus get impinged, the spinal canal narrows and the brainstem begins to get choked. Your body suddenly is in a heightened state of nervous system agitation because of the increased and constant pressure on the spinal cord and the brainstem.
If that doesn’t sound so bad, let’s do a quick recap of the responsibilities of your brainstem. I think the most effective way to show this is to highlight the cranial nerves housed in that area and their corresponding functions.
Cranial Nerves of the Brainstem
III – Oculomotor; movement of the eyeballs & eyelids
IV – Trochlear; eye movement (superior oblique muscle)
V – Trigeminal; facial sensation, coordination & chewing
VI – Abducent; eye movement
VII – Facial; facial expressions, sense of taste
VIII – Vestibulocochlear (aka Acoustic/Auditory); equilibrium & hearing
IX – Glossopharyngeal; swallowing, sense of taste, saliva secretion
X – Vagus; sensory & motor control of throat muscles, heart rate, respiration, digestion and much more
XI – Accessory; neck & shoulder movement (SCM & trapezius)
XII – Hypoglossal; tongue movement, swallowing, speech
The forward head posture is not the only possible distortion a person might experience; I am highlighting a worst-case scenario in order to stress the importance of proper alignment. But the truth is, there are countless ways in which your body might create compensation patterns and solidify those problematic patterns into your personal biomechanics. I want to emphasize that even slight distortions cause force to be transmitted through your body in less-than-ideal ways, causing wear and tear on joints, ligaments and other sensitive structures.
Postural correction is no easy task; in fact, it takes time, discipline and a good reason to want to correct it (a reason which I hope I’ve provided). It is important to remember that your postural distortion did not happen over night. How old are you? Exactly! It happened over as many years as you are old. It will require some patience to change it, but I hope I have illuminated some of the potentially staggering benefits of doing so.
Any good physical therapist will be able to help you analyze your posture and give you exercises for correction. If you are consistent, I have total confidence that you will make huge strides. By summer of 2018, I will have a set of video tutorials up on my site highlighting correctional work for specific distortions and dysfunctions. Please be sure to come back and check those out.
In the meantime, the next time your loved ones yell at you to stand up straight, they are not just concerned with your sexual attractiveness or your potential to find a desirable mate, they are looking out for your long-term health. Posture is not just aesthetics, it is essential to your well-being. Let’s fix it already!
My customized 2-hour myofascial release sessions include an extensive postural assessment. Schedule a session for yourself and see what it’s all about!