Neck pain is something almost all of us have experienced at some point in our lives, whether it’s been strain from overuse or perhaps just a crick from sleeping awkwardly. It makes us uncomfortable for two or three days, but gradually calms down and bothers us no more. For a remaining few, this pain doesn’t just burn out or fade away; it may wax and wane, but it never stays away for too long. After a while it’s considered chronic neck pain, and it’s much harder to manage than just an odd burst of stiffness.
Chronic neck pain can be the result of osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, neuralgia, trauma and more, but we’ll focus on one of the more common causes of neck pain in all age groups – postural strain. Poor desk set-up, lousy chairs and using laptops all contribute to the problem, but recently we’ve been hearing about the strain that smart phone usage places on our necks. We need to change the way we use our devices, and this means starting with our neck position.
How our neck position weighs us down
Our heads weigh around 5 kilograms. When in a neutral, upright position, this weight is distributed evenly through the spinal column and places no direct strain through the neck. When we tilt our heads forward or backward, we incrementally shift and concentrate that weight into the neck muscles, effectively adding as much as 20 kilograms to the load if we are looking down towards our feet. If that’s hard to get your head around, try this experiment: Next time you carry in a bag of groceries, try holding it away from your body for a few minutes, remembering that it weighs exactly the same as when you carried it by your side. This is what we’re doing to our necks. While a fitness buff might consider that a work-out, in reality this postural strain is causing muscular damage that may just decide to stick around.
Avoiding postural strain
Minor tilting and slouching will not necessarily lead to chronic pain problems down the track, or we’d all be in trouble. Kids and teenagers especially seem to twist and bend into all sorts of positions without any ill-effect. But for anyone with a history of neck pain or musculoskeletal problems, postural strain can be an immediate trigger for pain and stiffness. So how can you avoid it?
Start by ergonomically assessing any desk that you regularly work at: this means chair height and back support, leg and foot support, and the screen position and angle. So what should you be aiming for? Your feet should be flat on the ground, not dangling or outstretched. You may need to raise your chair height or purchase a foot stool. Look at how your arms rest, particularly the arm that operates your mouse – it should be no less than a 90 degree angle.
The chair you use is also important. It should support the length of your thigh, and the back support should be horizontal or slightly tilted forward – never reclined. Armrests can be comfortable, but they are not necessary. If they prevent you from tucking the chair under the desk, remove them altogether because they’ll only create strain. Keep your keyboard close so you’re not stretching out for it (but not so close that your elbows tuck towards your back). The screen height is one of the most important factors for neck pain – keep the top of your screen at or just below your line of sight. This is the angle that keeps your head in that neutral position that avoids postural strain.
If you work with your hands at a desk – drafting, drawing, making intricate things, etc – consider purchasing an adjustable tilted desk so your neck doesn’t have to do all the tilting. Any time your head is in an unsupported position you’re risking a flare-up of pain or stiffness. If you need an extra tall chair or a supporting pillow (better for home set-ups), then don’t be afraid to make it happen.
Stay active and seek help
Regular stretching and strengthening exercises can keep the worst of the pain and stiffness at bay. You can also experiment with hot and cold packs, repositioning, upgrading your pillow and even your bed. Chronic sufferers may require medication, with supervision from a medical doctor. Swimming, yoga, Pilates, and good old fashion walking will help to keep you mobile and minimise stiffness, but sometimes you need a little extra help to get by.
This is when massage therapy and physiotherapy can help to keep you stronger and more supple. If you are experiencing frequent bouts of neck pain, chances are you’d benefit from a health insurance policy that covers these treatments. Start by comparing providers today and then reap the rewards into tomorrow – not such a pain in the neck after all!