If your hands feel tight and tingly or you notice numbness in your legs, poor posture could be the culprit. Luckily, making some changes to your work space and performing some key exercises can improve your posture and make a significant difference in your symptoms. Because a host of medical conditions can cause numbness in the extremities, you should also see a doctor for an accurate diagnosis.
Poor posture can lead to numbness in the arms and legs. Stretching and strengthening exercises can help.
Understand Your Spine
Proper posture keeps your spine in the optimal position for you to function. Your spine is made up of stacked bones called vertebrae. Nerves exit between the vertebrae and branch off to supply sensation to your skin and power muscles in your arms and legs.
Poor posture can cause pressure on your spinal nerves, leading to pain and tingling. Over time, nerve compression can cause complete numbness and muscle weakness.
Mind Your Neck
Prolonged sitting often leads to a forward-head posture. You might notice that your shoulders are slumped over and your head is jutted forward. This posture can compress spinal nerves in your neck, leading to arm numbness.
Forward-head posture also leads to tightness in your chest muscles and weakness in your upper back and neck muscles. According to a study published in 2017 by the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics, performing a combination of stretching and strengthening exercises twice per week for 16 weeks can successfully reverse forward-head posture.
Perform the Corner Stretch
How to do it: Stand facing a corner with your feet staggered. Raise your arms to shoulder height with your elbows bent. Place one forearm flat against each wall.
Slowly lean in toward the corner until you feel a stretch, but no pain, across your chest. Hold this position for 20 to 30 seconds, then relax. Repeat three times.
Squeeze Your Scapulae
Perform scapular squeezes to strengthen the muscles between your shoulder blades that help maintain proper neck posture.
How to do it: Sit up straight on a firm surface. Squeeze your shoulder blades together as if you are trying to hold a pencil between them.
Be careful not to shrug your shoulders up toward your ears during this movement — squeeze your shoulder blades down and together. Hold for five seconds, then relax. Repeat several times.
Watch Your Elbows
Poor posture doesn't only affect nerves in the spine — branches of your spinal nerves can also be compressed, causing numbness. Poor posture often includes leaning your elbows on armrests. This can lead to cubital tunnel syndrome, or compression of the ulnar nerve — commonly known as the funny bone — on the inside of the elbow.
Ulnar nerve compression causes numbness in your pinky and half of the ring finger. In addition to avoiding the use of armrests, nerve gliding exercises can help reduce these symptoms.
How to do it: Begin with your arm straight out to the side, palm up, at shoulder-height. Slowly bend your elbow while tilting your wrist backward. Keeping your wrist bent, slowly straighten your elbow. Repeat three to five times.
Keep Up With Carpal Tunnel
Many people automatically think of carpal tunnel syndrome as the primary instigator of hand numbness. This is a valid cause of numbness related to poor posture.
The median nerve travels through a small tunnel in your wrists (sharing that space with nine tendons) to provide sensation to your thumb, index, middle and half of your ring fingers. It also powers many of the small muscles in your hands. Overuse of your hands during activities such as typing, playing the piano or knitting can cause inflammation and swelling in the carpal tunnel, putting pressure on the median nerve. This can lead to numbness.
To reduce pressure on the median nerve, keep your wrist posture neutral, or directly in line with your forearms. Many "ergonomic" keyboards and mouse pads tilt your wrist backward, which can actually increase pressure on this nerve.
Stretch It Out
In addition to proper positioning, stretching forearm muscles that connect to tendons in the carpal tunnel can help reduce inflammation and pressure on the median nerve.
How to do it: Keeping your elbow straight, lift your arm to shoulder-height, in a palm-up position. Grasp your right palm with your left hand. Using your left hand, slowly stretch your right hand backward until you feel a stretch along your forearm.
Hold for 20 to 30 seconds, and repeat three times. Stretch both arms, even if your symptoms are one-sided. Chances are, they will both be tight.
Watch Your Back
Poor posture can lead to compression of spinal nerves in your lower back — a condition called lumbar radiculopathy, or more commonly, sciatica. In addition to pain, this condition can cause numbness and tingling in leg, hip or foot, depending on the specific nerve that is affected.
In addition to ergonomic interventions, such as placing a rolled towel behind your lower back while sitting or driving, strengthening exercises help support your lower spine and improve posture to decrease nerve compression.
Don't Ignore Your Core
Strengthen the muscles in your lower back and abdominal region to support your lumbar spine and improve your posture. Master the pelvic tilt, or abdominal draw-in exercise, first to make sure you are targeting the correct muscles.
How to do it: Lie on your back on a firm surface with your knees bent and hands on your hips. Slowly tighten your abs as if you are pulling your belly button toward your spine, and press your lower back into the ground. You should feel the muscles under your fingertips tightening.
Hold for a few seconds, then relax. Perform 10 repetitions, working up to three sets in a row.
Step It Up
Once you've mastered the pelvic tilt, add some arm and leg movements to increase the difficulty of this exercise. These movements can include:
- Marching your legs
- Lifting and lowering one arm at a time
- Lifting both arms together
- Kicking one leg out at a time
To further increase the difficulty of these exercises, try them while sitting on a therapy ball.
- American Federation of Teachers: Ergonomics: What's It All About?
- Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics: Effects of a Resistance and Stretching Training Program on Forward Head and Protracted Shoulder Posture in Adolescents
- Kaiser Permanente: Postural Exercises
- Oxford University Hospitals: Cubital Tunnel Syndrome
- Healthwise: Wrist Care: Preventing Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
- American Physical Therapy Association: Physical Therapist's Guide to Lumbar Radiculopathy and Sciatica
- Princeton University Athletic Medicine: Lumbar/Core Strength and Stability Exercises