By Nancy Simpkins

What single thing can improve your appearance, reduce your risk of suffering chronic back pain and headaches, improve your circulation and digestion, and reduce your stress levels? No, it’s not a miracle drug. It’s good posture.

Good posture keeps your bones properly aligned, reducing the strain on your muscles and joints. When your posture is correct, your spine will curve slightly forward at the neck, slightly backward in the upper back, and slightly forward in the lower back. These are the cervical, thoracic and lumbar curves. Strong and flexible muscles in the abdomen, hips and legs make it easier to maintain good posture.

Poor posture can cause misalignment of the joints, resulting in excessive wear and tear that leads to arthritis. Muscles become imbalanced, with some growing stronger and tighter, while others grow weaker and overstretched. Imbalances can put pressure on nerves, causing pain. For example, studies have shown that the shoulder position of a person who slumps while sitting may cause damage to the median nerve, which runs from the shoulder to the hand. Excessive pressure on the sciatic nerve causes pain in the back and legs, and misalignment of the cervical spine can lead to headaches.

When a slumped sitting posture compresses the abdomen, stomach contents may back up into the esophagus and cause gastroesophageal reflux. Poor posture can also compress blood vessels, interfering with normal circulation.

Causes of bad posture include weak muscles, poor flexibility, improper sitting and standing habits, obesity, pregnancy, and wearing high-heeled shoes. Physical therapists can evaluate and treat problems with posture. Treatment will usually include exercises to strengthen weak muscles and stretch tight ones, so that the body can achieve proper alignment.