A recent task force has determined that women are at higher risk for developing neck pain than men. What accounts for this gender difference? A number of factors contribute to neck pain including coping skills, personalities, work environments and physical activities. But, as a patient eloquently stated while lifting her shirt, “What about these?” Are breasts a major contributor to the higher incidence of neck pain in women? In 1996, our judicial system examined the evidence and determined (Bancroft v Tecumseh Products) that breast reduction surgery was indeed medically necessary to relieve headache, neck pain and shoulder pain. This verdict establishes the cause and effect relationship between breasts and neck pain.
A closer examination into the breast risk factor can illuminate a multitude of reasons why size A, B, C, D, or DD really matters to the spine. Let’s think in terms of triple “B’s”.
Are your breasts big, small, not at all (absent) or just right? How you feel about your breasts can affect your posture in a negative or a positive way. If you like your breasts, your posture might be confident and the spine well aligned with your chest out; then, the girls are front and center. If you hate your breasts, your posture might be shy and slumped with your chest sunken behind the shoulders; then, the girls are hidden from world. This shy posture with the shoulders rounded forward causes the neck and head to thrust forward like a turtle. This turtle-like posture strains the neck.
Recently, a spine specialist from the Mayo Clinic told me about an unfortunate young woman who did not develop breasts because of cancer. At the age of 30, she treated herself to breast implants. To this surgeon’s amazement, his patient’s posture greatly improved after she had the implants. He admitted to underestimating the impact that the lack of breasts had on this woman’s attitude and her posture. Now, her posture is erect and confident instead of shy and slumped.
Nothing is better for the spine than a good healthy dose of self-assuredness and self-confidence. Having breasts is an emotional experience for many women.
How big is your bust size? Well, if your breasts are too big, neck pain may be in your future. Try strapping on two five pound sacks of sugar all day. That task is tiresome just to think about. The excessive forward, chest weight throws the spine out of balance as the chest is drawn forward towards the knees. This slouched posture eventually fatigues the muscles and painfully stretches the ligaments of the neck, shoulders and mid-back. Reduction of breast weight (breast reduction surgery) is a well recognized treatment of neck pain because it restores proper alignment. In turn, if you are thinking about an upgrade to a larger size, think again because that mistake may give you a pain in the neck.
A woman came to me with neck pain a few years ago. Originally, she thought that her neck pain was a work injury, but further investigation revealed that she had breast augmentation surgery a few years prior to developing pain. In fact, the plastic surgeon warned her against such a large size. She admitted to me, “These (pointing to her breasts) were a huge mistake.” Guess who is going to pay for the breast reduction surgery in this afflicted woman?
The spine is frequently the victim of vanity in the form of artificial delights. As with this case, the “D”-lights can be too heavy.
Are your straps digging into your shoulders and creating grooves? By pulling on the shoulders, bra straps can pull a woman into the dreaded turtle-like posture which creates poor alignment for the neck as the shoulders and head thrust forward. Once again, poor posture causes pain. A poorly fitting bra can be the culprit. A well fitting bra supports like a shelf from below, not hanging on the shoulders from above. Eliminating bad bras may liberate you from neck pain.
One of my patients was liberated from her chronic neck pain when she realized that her pain reduced when she wore camisoles or nothing at all under her shirts. Varying her bra strap patterns also helped because the strap position on her shoulders (from higher to lower) varied from day to day. She never got stuck in a bad groove again. Her neck pain eased as a result.
Wardrobe choices have an impact on the spine in more ways than one, especially for women. Bras can increase your risk of developing neck pain.
Medical research tends to ignore the gender differences. One cannot ignore the anatomical differences. When was the last time you saw a man wearing a bra? The breasts’ impact on neck pain can be underestimated by both patient and doctor. A woman’s perception about her breasts affects her posture. The bust size and weight affects her balance. And the bra can lead to shoulder grooving and pulling. All of the “B’s” affect the neck. Keep the triple “B’s” in mind the next time you are experiencing neck pain. Then, lift up your shirt and ask yourself, “What about these?” because you should never underestimate the power of your breasts.
More solutions for women can be found in my book called "High Heels to Hormones: A Woman’s Guide to Spine Care."