Are you suffering from neck pain, headaches? Do you wake every morning with a stiff and painful neck? Neck pain is a common complaint and affects approximately 33.6 million people a year worldwide. There are many causes of neck pain, the most obvious being poor posture. So what is causing your poor posture? Bad habits, weakness, lifestyle. The new buzz word out there is text neck: so many people are using wireless devices such as cell phones and tablets, not just for making calls and messaging, but for surfing the web and even reading books.
One university study reports that on average a person spends five hours a day on the phone. The postures we adopt when using these new gadgets are causing us to hunch our upper backs and to poke our chins forward. But it’s not only our necks that suffer from these new postures; our upper backs, shoulders, even our arms can be affected.
So why is this happening? Well, first consider that the average head weighs ten pounds. At a 15-degree angle, this weight increases to about 27 lbs, at 30 degrees to 40 lbs, at 45 degrees to 49 lbs, and at 60 degrees it’s 60 lbs. As the head moves from its neutral position its weight increases, putting pressure on the neck and upper back. So what does 60lbs feel like? Imagine carrying an 8-year-old around all day. As you hold your neck forward in this position all the tissue stretches and causes soreness and inflammation. Imagine bending your finger back and holding it there. Even after a few minutes you start to feel discomfort.
But it isn’t only how we move around during the day, how we sleep can also be the cause of our neck pain. How many times have you woken up with a stiff or painful neck? So how do we protect our neck while sleeping? Firstly, let’s look at our pillows: the best rule for choosing a pillow is find one that keeps the neck in neutral, or even consider an orthopaedic neck pillow that provides support in all the right places. Next, monitor your favourite sleeping position. Most people find lying on their backs is the most comfortable for their necks; it helps to keep the spine in neutral. If you are more comfortable laying on your side, choose a pillow that raises your head enough to keep your spine in neutral, but avoid sleeping in a curled up position. Sleeping curled up causes all the muscles of the neck and back to overstretch (a position that we use often throughout the day, when sitting slouched). The worst position for our necks is laying on our stomachs as we have to turn our neck to the side and this puts a lot of strain on the muscles and soft tissue, so avoid this as much as possible.
So what can we do about it? Well, firstly we need to monitor our use of devices and, secondly, we need to check our posture. A good way to improve our posture is to exercise. Simple exercises would be:
Strengthening for the neck:
• To exercise muscles at the side of the neck, put your right hand against the right side of your head above your ear. As you press against the side of your head with your hand, also press your head back against your hand. You should feel the muscles at the side of your neck tighten, but your head should not move to either side. Press firmly, but not quite as hard as you can. Hold for about six seconds, rest for up to 10 seconds, then repeat to the left side.
• To exercise muscles at the back of the neck and upper back, put one hand over the other and place them at the back of your head. Press your hands against your head at the same time you press your head straight back against your hands. Press firmly, but not quite as hard as you can. Do not tip your head back. Hold for about six seconds, rest for up to 10 seconds, then repeat.
• To exercise muscles at the front of the neck, place both hands against your forehead just above your eyebrows. Press your hands against your forehead at the same time you press your head against your hands. Press firmly, but not quite as hard as you can. Do not tip your head forward. Hold for about six seconds, rest for up to 10 seconds, then repeat.
Repeat each exercise eight to 12 times.
Stretching for the neck and chest
• To stretch the muscles at the side of your neck. In a seated position, slowly bend your neck until you feel a stretch. To increase the stretch hold on to the chair with the opposite hand to the stretch and, with the other hand, apply gentle pressure to increase the side bend.
• To stretch the muscles at the front and side of your neck. In a seated or standing position, slowly turn your head to the right until you feel a stretch. To increase the stretch apply gentle pressure with your right hand. Repeat to the left side.
• To stretch the muscles at the back of your neck. In a seated or standing position, slowly tuck your chin into your chest.
Hold the stretches for 10-15 seconds. Repeat if necessary.
Common Neck Stretch to Avoid
Neck circles, which involve the slow rotation of the head being tilted and rolled in a full circle, have been performed by most people in gym class or while participating in a sport or dance class. However, research shows that the combination of extending the head backward and rotating it puts undue stress on the cervical spine. Compared to other neck movements, neck circles could also cause more compression of the arteries that take blood to the brain.
If you are already experiencing neck pain and have had it for longer than four weeks, then the best course of action is to seek advice from a professional. A good choice would be a physiotherapist. Physiotherapists are healthcare professionals who treat pain movement disfunction. They will assess you and assist you to reduce your pain and discomfort, and teach you ways to manage your symptoms and advise on the best exercises to help you.