Neck and upper shoulder pain are very common and affect about 50-70% of people at some point in their lives. Neck pain can come from a car wreck or other trauma, but 85% of the time it has a mechanical cause often due activities we do throughout the day, such as workstations, sleeping, watching tv, looking at our phones, exercise performance and other general life activities.
The job of your neck may seem relatively simple. But when you think about it, your neck is carrying your head all day and night. Your head is heavier than you might think (about the weight of a bowling ball) and is balanced on top of your neck (imagine a bowling ball resting on top of a 6” stick). If it starts to lean or be pulled in any direction for a period of time, your neck works very hard and it takes a lot of work to hold your head up!
Below is some good tips for neck health:
- Breathe: Many of the muscles of your neck can be involved with breathing, especially forced inhalation (exercise, stress, smoking). Try this, very hour set your watch to remind yourself to pause and take 5 deep easy breaths. These breathes should have a full, long exhalation and then pause for 2-3 seconds before taking a deep relaxed inhalation again through your nose.
- Carry backpacks on both shoulders: Carrying a backpack on one shoulder causes your shoulders to become uneven and your neck to side bend. Share the load by wearing your backpack on both shoulders to keep your head and shoulders level by using both shoulder straps.
- Have your workstation evaluation by a physical therapy: Your computer monitor should be set up so that you are looking at it at eye level. Your workstation should be set up so that things you use are reachable with both hands. Utilizing both hands, and not doing the same thing over and over with the same hand, keeps your body moving with variation and avoids strong postural habits. Make items you use often easier reach and things you use less often harder to reach. Have a comfortable chair. You should be able to sit all the way back in the chair with your knees slightly higher or at least level with your hips. Set an alarm to get up at least 1x/hour to move around your space. When you sit, avoid finding yourself leaning forward and sitting on the edge of your chair. Your head and neck should relax on top of your body and not advance toward the screen.
- Phone at work: A lot of people use their necks to hold their phones to their ears – not a good idea. Try using either a Bluetooth or get a headset for your phone.
- Have your eyes checked: If you are straining to see, you will often find that you try to move your head and neck forward to be able to see whatever you are looking at. This causes far more work for your neck by causing a forward head position stressing anterior neck muscles, joints, and cervical spine discs.
- Pillows for back sleepers and side sleepers: Pillows should fill in the gap between your head and the bed. If you are a side sleeper you will need a pillow to fill the gap between the outside of your shoulder and your ear, so that your neck stays aligned. This will require a thicker pillow than if you are a back sleeper. If you are a back sleeper, you should use a thin pillow just to have a little cushioning under your head – there is not much space to fill in. Try to avoid sleeping on your belly, as this forces your neck to twist and extend.
- Do not use your neck to lift your body when rising from a lying position: People often just wake up with neck pain one morning and wonder why? Many times, individuals use their necks to lift themselves up out of bed or to roll over in bed. This is not what your neck was designed to do. Let your neck relax, and rather roll your neck and trunk as a unit. If you need to, you can use your arms or legs to help your reach in the direction you are going to roll.
- Tongue position: Your tongue is the largest muscle in your head and neck. When you are not talking or eating, it should rest on the roof of your mouth just behind, but not touching your teeth. If your tongue is positioned correctly it will have a positive influence allowing relaxation of the muscles in your neck, head and spine.
- Use the headrest in your car and set up the mirrors so your head can relax: If your mirrors are positioned correctly, they will be a constant reminder to let your neck relax back against the headrest.