The Postural Syndrome

DEFINITION

I would define the postural syndrome as mechanical deformation of postural origin causing pain of a strictly intermittent nature, which appears when the soft tissues surrounding the lumbar segments are placed under prolonged stress. This occurs when a person performs activities which keep the lumbar spine in a relatively static position (as in vacuuming, gardening) or when they maintain end positions for any length of time (as in prolonged sitting).

History

Patients with postural pain are usually aged thirty or under. Frequently they have a sedentary occupation and in general they lack physical fitness. In addition to low back pain they often describe pains in the mid-thoracic and cervical areas. They state that the pain is produced by positions and not by movement, is intermittent and may sometimes disappear for two to three days at a time. It is often found that, when patients are more active at weekends — playing tennis and dancing — they have relatively little or no trouble. The reason is that, although activity places more stress on the lumbar spine than does the adoption of static postures, with movement the stresses are continually changing and pain does not occur. The stresses arising from static postures, although less than those occuring during activity, are sustained and will, if maintained, eventually cause pain.

Examination

On examination no deformity is evident, no loss of movement will be detected and the test movements prove to be painfree. X-rays are normal and laboratory tests are negative. The patient’s sitting and often the standing posture will be poor, and usually this is the only objective finding.

Clinical example

Let us look at the clinical example of a typical patient with the postural syndrome. The patient has a bad posture indeed, and the pain cannot be reproduced by the test movements. To reproduce the appropriate postural stress, the patient must assume and maintain the position that is stated to cause pain — that is, the sitting posture. Only after the passage of sufficient time will the symptoms appear in this position, and up to half an hour may be required before pain is felt. Once pain has been produced by adoption of a certain posture, it will be abolished by correction of that posture. Now our suspicions are confirmed and a diagnosis can be made. In short, the patient with the postural syndrome has no clinical or laboratory findings indicating a particular pathology and all functions appear perfectly normal.

Thousands of people are seeking treatment for pain resulting from bad postures; they consult doctors who often are unsuited to deal with the problem and, taking the easiest way out, prescribe pain relieving drugs instead of recommending postural correction; disillusioned with drug therapy patients attend a chiropractor, osteopath, physiotherapist or some fringe manipulator who, mainly out of ignorance, proceeds to manipulate joints in which there is no pathology and certainly nothing ‘out of place’.

I must emphasise that in many patients presenting with postural pain no pathology needs to exist. All patients with low back pain have an increase in pain when postural stresses are added. In derangement and dysfunction there is a pathological cause for the pain, and postural stresses may enhance the pathological state. But in the postural syndrome no pathology is present, and the only treatment that is required is postural correction and re-education and instruction in prophylaxis.

Postures involved

Every patient with pain of postural origin has a different description for the circumstances leading to the production of pain. Sitting, by no means the only postural situation causing and prolonging low back pain, is the most frequent cause of postural pain. Some patients will name the sitting position purely and simply as causative, and they complain that pain is produced as soon as they spend more than a certain amount of time, say ten minutes, in any sort of chair or car seat. Others will describe sitting at the typewriter as the only time that pain is felt. Bus, taxi, and car drivers all complain of being worse while seated for long periods in their vehicles; both pilots and passengers complain about the seating in airplanes.

Fig. Clinical example of a typical patient with the postural syndrome.

Fig. Sitting postures.

Working in prolonged standing positions also may cause postural pain, but the opportunity to move and change position is greater in standing than in sitting and the avenues for relief are more numerous. Consequently, there are less complaints of pain arising from the standing position than from sitting. People who work in cramped positions, be it standing or sitting, are also likely to complain of low back pain. The incidence of low back pain is very high in people who work in continuously stooped positions.

Fig. Standing postures.

The lying position may be an additional source of stress enhancing low back pain, and if pain predominantly occurs while lying it requires thorough investigation.

Fig. Lying posture.