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Are Posture Correctors Useful?

Consumer Reports 1/27/2023 Catherine Roberts

The relationship between posture and back pain is complicated. Here's what experts say about the trendy devices meant to help you sit up straight.

© Provided by Consumer Reports

By Catherine Roberts

Although I have always been tall, I have never been known for my posture. As early as middle school, one of my basketball and volleyball coaches began regularly correcting my posture. She would poke me in the back during after-school practices, to nudge me into standing up straight.

Decades later, not much has changed. Even today, remembering not to slouch turns out to be nearly impossible for me. Without enlisting my old coach to follow me around, poking me in the back, I just can’t remember to pay attention to my posture.

When I turned to the Internet for help, I found that there are dozens of products aimed at helping people like me. Posture correctors, whether analog braces worn under clothes or wearable devices from startup companies, purport to train you to have a more aligned and upright posture. Many also claim to help relieve the extremely common ailment of back pain. But do posture-correcting devices really do any good?

Overall, the evidence suggesting that posture correctors have a benefit for most people is thin. “Generally, we think of those as gimmicks,” says Scott Beadnell, DPT, a physical therapist with Oregon Health & Science University. He says in his 13 years of practicing as a physical therapist, he’s never recommended such a device to a patient. 

Of course, some individuals may find they help in some way or enjoy using them. But even so, achieving one “correct” posture might not even be completely necessary when it comes to keeping yourself comfortable and pain-free at work. A more important goal, the experts we spoke with say: movement, and variety.

What Are Posture Correctors?

Most posture-correcting devices tend to be some variation on a brace, bra, or shirt that’s meant to pull your shoulders, neck, and back into a more straightened-up alignment. These may claim to retrain your muscle memory, to help you feel more energized, or to relieve pain caused by bad posture. Some even say they can help with spinal conditions like scoliosis. 

Another group of posture correctors are wearable electronic devices that detect non-upright posture and use some form of biofeedback—generally vibration—to remind you to straighten up. Probably the most well-known brand in this category is the Upright Go, which you can attach to your back with either skin tape or a necklace. You can also find knock-offs of the Upright Go online.

Is There Any Evidence Posture Correctors Work?

Not a lot. One 2019 review, published in the Scandinavian Journal of Pain, collected results from six studies that assessed posture-correcting shirts. The researchers found evidence that suggests that posture-correcting shirts do change a person’s posture, and might help alleviate pain and discomfort, and even increase energy levels and productivity. But there were some big problems with the studies, says J.P. Caneiro, a physiotherapist and research fellow at Curtin University in Perth, Australia, and one of the review’s authors. 

For one thing, the six studies could not adequately assess how well posture correctors alleviated pain because they used participants who were not in pain. “That’s a major flaw in itself,” Canerio says, “because if you’re trying to push something that will correct your posture and will give you pain relief and improve your function, you should be including people that have those problems in the first place to make sure that you’re creating a change.”

In general, the scientists determined that the quality of the research on posture-correcting shirts was generally low, which makes the conclusions of those studies a bit shaky. The takeaway? There’s not currently good quality evidence to support recommending posture- correcting shirts, Caniero says, “especially as a management strategy for musculoskeletal pain.”

The evidence is thin when it comes to electronic devices, too.

Upright, which makes the wearable Upright Go, cites just one peer-reviewed study showing a benefit from its device. That study, published in 2020 in Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, included 26 college students, 13 of whom chose to try out the Upright device and 13 of whom didn’t. Those that used it reported feeling more energy and less fatigue. But the study, which was in a small group of young people, didn’t assess pain or employ any objective measurements of posture. (Upright did not respond to a request for a comment.)

Several experts I spoke with noted that a lack of evidence doesn’t mean these devices are proven to be useless for everyone—just that scientists haven’t yet been able to show they’re helpful for many people.

Still, some individuals might benefit. You might find, for example, that a posture brace or a wearable provides a helpful reminder to try and keep your spine in a neutral position while you’re working at your desk, says Mayur Jivanjee, a musculoskeletal and vestibular physiotherapist based in Melbourne, Australia.

Are Posture Correctors Recommended for Anyone?

According to the research, yes: There is one area in which posture-correcting braces are well-supported by evidence, and that is in children who have the spinal curvature condition scoliosis.

For kids who are still growing, whose spines aren’t fully mature, there’s solid evidence that using a corrective brace can help reduce the risk of spinal curvature getting worse, according to the Scoliosis Research Society. Generally, people work with medical professionals to find the right type and fit for such a brace. (They’re not necessarily the same ones consumers can get readily online.)

Once a person has stopped growing, however, bracing is no longer recommended as a treatment for scoliosis, since it won’t stop spinal curvature from getting worse, according to Wolters Kluwer’s UpToDate, a decisionmaking tool for physicians.

Are There Potential Downsides to Trying a Posture Corrector?

Yes. The cost of these devices is one, of course. You might be spending money without much guarantee of benefit. 

Additionally, Jivanjee notes it’s possible that a brace might encourage extremes of position, which is why he wouldn’t recommend wearing one all day or even for more than an hour or two at a time.

Eugene Wai, MD, a spine surgeon and associate professor in orthopedic surgery at the University of Ottawa, worries about another type of harm, at least with respect to physical posture braces. For people struggling with back pain, muscle weakness and strain may be a more relevant problem than simply their posture. With a brace, Wai says, “The danger is that people would maybe develop dependence on it, and then actually that might lead to worsening of the weakness.” More weakness, he says, might exacerbate the back pain, rather than help.

Does Bad Posture Cause Back Pain?

This is an important question behind some of the promise of posture correctors, and the answer is that no one knows for sure.

“I don’t think we have good evidence about bad posture leading to chronic back pain,” Wai says. He co-authored a 2010 study in The Spine Journal that reviewed existing studies on workers who must adopt awkward postures at work (an example: sewer cleaners in Denmark who had to hunch over to work in narrow sewer tunnels). The researchers found little evidence to back up the idea that awkward postures cause back pain. 

But other analyses—also synthesizing existing studies—have found the opposite. For example, a 2012 analysis in the American Journal of Public Health did find that people whose work required nonneutral back postures (along with other types of exertion, like lifting) were more likely to experience low back pain. 

In 2020, researchers writing in the Journal of Biomechanics attempted to pull together the results from multiple analyses of the evidence on posture and physical exertion. The takeaway? The conflicting findings mean that, currently, there’s no consensus about the extent to which postures and other physical factors (sitting, standing, lifting, bending, twisting, and more) contribute to the development of back pain. 

Back pain itself is complicated and not fully understood, notes Dino Samartzis, DSc, an associate professor in the department of orthopedic surgery at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. He points out that recent evidence shows factors like genetics, demographics, socioeconomics, and even the microbiome can also potentially influence a person’s risk of developing a pain problem.

Do You Really Need to Correct Your Posture?

Not necessarily. The underlying assumption of posture-correcting devices—the idea that there might be one “correct” posture that everyone should seek to achieve—may not be so clear-cut. 

For some providers, like Jivanjee, the dichotomy between good and bad posture isn’t particularly useful. He recommends different postures or movements to different people, “based on their work pattern, their body dimensions, and their injury history,” he says. 

Several of the experts I spoke with emphasized this same point: that the right posture for you might not look like what it looks like for someone else, or like what you think of as “good” posture generally. OHSU’s Beadnell explains that yes, some people who experience back pain might benefit from adopting less of a slouched posture when sitting at their desk, for example. 

On the other hand, some folks might be better off relaxing a bit. “There are people that sit really upright or have what we would think of as really good posture. And usually these are people that were either in the military or had dance training, like ballet especially, or gymnastics, when they really overcorrect their posture,” he says. “And for them being in a more slouched position is actually a much better position.”

There’s one other potential benefit to adopting a more upright posture, according to some research, and it has to do with your mood. There’s clear evidence, for example, that more slumped or stooped postures can indicate a poor mood, and can even be used to help diagnose depression. Some research suggests that the relationship may also run in the opposite direction—that adopting more upright postures might actually help improve mood.

What to Do to Protect Your Back

Chilling out about having perfect posture doesn’t mean tossing out all the principles of, for instance, sitting well at work. I checked in with Paul Ritchey, DrPH, one of Consumer Reports’ in-house ergonomics experts, for clarity. He agreed that there’s likely no one perfect posture for everyone. But there are still things you can do to help avoid soreness, strain, and discomfort in your back when you’re working. 

Make your workspace more ergonomic. Ritchey suggests setting up your workspace to ensure you can keep your back—and your other joints as well—in neutral positions, or rather, neutral zones (since, again, there’s no exact position that means you’ve achieved a perfect posture).

The advantage of allowing your back to assume its natural S-shaped curve is that this puts the least stress on your joints, intervertebral discs (the soft, flexible material in between your spinal bones), and muscles, and helps you avoid fatigue. This isn’t the same as simple advice to “sit up straight.” For example, ergonomists usually recommend using a quality office chair that’s adjusted for your body and sitting with a slight recline to help support your back in a neutral posture, rather than relying on your trunk muscles alone. 

Pay attention to your comfort. Ritchey recommends trying to be mindful of how your body is feeling, whatever position you’re in. “In the office and in your daily life, like when using a smartphone, it’s easy to shrug off a nagging discomfort,” he says. But it’s best not to ignore those little aches or pains, and instead try and find a way to make yourself feel more comfortable. 

Don’t stay in one position all day. All the experts I spoke with emphasized that more important than hitting one proper posture is making sure you move around frequently and change things up throughout the day. 

Moving around helps nourish your body. It gets your blood flowing, sending nutrients to your muscles and the discs of your spine, Ritchey says. A key tenet of ergonomics is that whatever position you’ve set yourself up to work in, you should try to get up, stretch, and move around, even for a minute or two, multiple times throughout the day—ideally every 30 minutes. 

This can also help if you’re experiencing pain that you’re worried about aggravating, says Caneiro. “There is evidence that people with persistent pain are more rigid and moving less,” he says, but freezing up and making yourself more rigid can be counterproductive. “There is evidence that taking that approach of relaxed movement actually provides people with reduction in pain and improvement in function.”

Know when to call in a professional. If you’re experiencing chronic pain, it’s best to visit a provider who can help you figure out what might be causing your pain and what you can do to address it. The solution is likely going to be more nuanced than the oversimplified promise of a posture-correcting device, Beadnell says.

Exercise regularly. The muscles of your core and trunk help support your back, so it’s important to keep them in good condition. Although you might think that means you need to do crunches every day, there’s actually a wide variety of exercises that will help, says Wai. “Almost any form of upright exercise will also work at strengthening the core as well.”

Consumer Reports is an independent, nonprofit organization that works side by side with consumers to create a fairer, safer, and healthier world. CR does not endorse products or services, and does not accept advertising. Copyright © 2023, Consumer Reports, Inc.

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