Dealing with neck pain is one of the most common musculoskeletal complaints that people experience. Large scale research indicates as much as 80% of the adult population experiences neck pain (and associated disorders) during their lifetime, with 30-50% of adults reporting neck pain each year. But how to handle it, day-to-day?
I hope what follows in the next few posts will begin to address some strategies that can be helpful in dealing with neck pain. We will cover:
- General recommendations (today)
- Maintaining neck range of motion
- Developing strength and resiliency for the neck, and
- The basics of a daily routine for neck pain.
Day-to-day neck pain and/or dysfunction presents in a variety of ways. Some people experience sudden, sharp sensations that make them fearful of continuing to move their neck, while others struggle with constant tightness, or restricted movements in certain directions. There are, of course, other presentations of neck pain that relate to the muscles, joints, and other soft tissues of the neck and surrounding structures, but these are the most common descriptors in my clinical experience.
If this kind of presentation sounds similar for you, here are a couple general recommendations to keep in mind if you are trying to lessen discomfort you have currently, or prevent discomfort in the future:
As with low back pain, irritated tissues signalling pain become more and more sensitive to future pain if that irritation continues. So while continuing to be active and keeping the neck moving is important, you should not continue with activities that irritate your neck, or create outright pain. Work around discomfort where possible so that you continue being active, but without pain. (I DO NOT recommend using a cervical neck collar unless significant injury has occurred, and you have been directed to use it by a health professional.)
Head and Neck Posture
Postural changes can certainly lead to a new bout of neck pain. Most commonly, the head and neck shift slightly from directly on top of the shoulders and chest to a position slightly forward. This subtle change in positioning of the head and neck places additional gravitational strain on the muscles and structures of the neck. In the short term, it’s no big deal — but if sustained for a period of time, the tissues fatigue and can no longer tolerate these new demands, leading to pain and soreness.
Although this was already a habitual change seen in office-workers, more recently increased use of screens, phones, and tablets for communication, work, and social purposes appear to have made this type of compensation more common. This is likely due to both an increased tendency to work while looking down on these devices as well as a tendency to “lean into” work that takes place with screens — slowly increasing the amount of forward movement of the head and neck.
In short: don’t let your head drift forward!
More practically though, the majority of people can make positive changes in the short term by simply trying to achieve a more “normal” head position by moving the head backwards over their shoulders. This position will feel more “stacked” on top of the shoulders. If this is difficult to achieve, or sustain long term, the activities in the coming days will help build the movement and resiliency needed to have more lasting impact.
For now, focus on avoiding irritation of the neck during activity, and being mindful of your head and neck posture relative to your torso and shoulders. In the next post, we’ll move into improving range of motion, or movement capability, for the neck and head.
Photo credit Box 1A to Aidan Jones via Flickr, no changes made (CC BY-SA 2.0).