If you find yourself suffering from soreness or stiffness in your neck and shoulders you may be among the 30% of adults in the U.S. that are plagued by neck pain. With a prevalence so high, it comes as no surprise that neck pain is one of the leading reasons that a person will seek the help of a physical therapist. Below are several of the most common reasons that you could be suffering from an aching neck:
Electronic Devices: whether you sit at a desk staring at a computer screen all day or you find yourself constantly responding to emails and text messages (or surfing instagram and facebook), the frequency with which we are engaged on electronic devices is one of the top triggers for neck pain. Often times, our posture in front of a computer or on our phones is less than ideal- picture mid back slouched over, shoulders rolled forward, chin jutting towards the screen… Over time, these postures contribute to compression in the lower portion of the cervical spine (bones of the neck) and to muscular tightness specifically in the pecs (as a result of forward shoulders) and upper traps- all of which could manifest as pain in the neck. Try making these changes to help combat neck pain resulting from overuse of electronics:
Adjust the set up of your desk: Make sure that your computer screen is at a height even with your line of sight so that there is no need to look up or down toward the screen. Invest in an adjustable tray for your keyboard that sits closer to your torso (so that there is no reason to reach or slouch forward to type). It goes without saying that both your keyboard and monitor should be positioned directly in front of your body and not off to the side (forcing you to twist your neck and torso in order to type or view your screen.)
Spend less time on your phone: There is really no ergonomic way to surf the internet or respond to emails on your mobile device, so seriously consider limiting the time you spend on your phone. Unless you urgently need to respond to an email, try to wait until you are in front of your newly adjusted computer where you have more control over your posture. This should also be a good reminder to spend less time scrolling through social media (since most of us do this mindlessly while bent over our phones).
Take stretching breaks: Set a timer for every 30 minutes and get up throughout the day to stretch out your pec muscles and open up the front of your shoulders. Position yourself in a doorway with one arm on the door frame (see image below). Move your torso forward as you rotate away from the arm in the door frame- this should cause you to feel a pull or a stretch across the front of the chest. Gently move in and out of this position 5-10 times on each arm.
Stress: Whether you find yourself stressed out behind your desk, or frazzled from a hectic day of rushing around, many people “hold their stress” in their upper shoulders and neck. It’s common to feel your shoulders begin to elevate towards your ears when you are faced with tense or stressful situations and often times the minute stressors of day to day activities are enough to trigger tension in the upper shoulders and neck. Over time, this tension can decrease the normal lubrication between the muscles of the upper shoulders/neck and the surrounding tissues causing “trigger points” or painful “knots” in the musculature. If you feel like your neck pain might be caused by stress, try making these adjustments:
Take breaks throughout the day to consciously “de stress”: set alerts or reminders on your phone to help draw attention to the stress that you’re holding in your neck. Take a few deep breaths and allow your shoulders to relax; often times simply drawing attention to the tension that you are holding in your shoulders is enough to help the muscles relax.
Spend time each morning and night “trigger pointing” your shoulders: In simpler terms, take some time to massage the muscles of your shoulders which have become tight and sore. The easiest way to do this is by using a lacrosse ball between a wall and your shoulder blade (as outlined in the picture below). Starting at the top of your shoulder blade, gently apply pressure into the ball as you roll the ball from the outside edge of your shoulder blade toward your spine (being extra careful NOT to roll over your spine). Drop the ball down slightly and repeat the pattern until you reached the bottom of your shoulder blade. It may seem counterintuitive to massage the muscles toward the bottom of your shoulder blade to relieve pain that is felt up in neck, but if you glance at the image below, it becomes clear that the tissue is continuous from the base of the skull all the way down to the lower border of the shoulder blade; tightness anywhere along this tissue could potentially contribute to your neck pain.
See a qualified massage therapist or physical therapist: If trigger pointing on your own just isn’t cutting it, you may consider stopping in for a few visits with a licensed massage therapist or physical therapist who specialize in soft tissue work. Many times it is beneficial to see a professional who can access and manipulate muscles that are much more difficult to reach on your own. These professionals can also guide you to the pertinent home exercises that will best address your specific needs and can refer you to the appropriate specialists if they believe that your neck pain deserves a closer look.
Poor lifting and carrying mechanics that contribute to overuse of neck muscles (specifically the upper portion of the trapezius muscle): Take a glimpse at the image below to familiarize yourself with the three parts of the trapezius (trap) muscle. When there is weakness in the mid and lower trap muscles as well as weakness of the core it is extremely common for the upper traps to become overused and painful. This is of greatest concern for people who are commonly lifting and carrying heavy objects throughout their day (people working in manual labor jobs, moms lifting and carrying children etc.) and for people who strength train regularly with poor form. Consider these tips to address body mechanics that contribute to over use of neck musculature:
Strengthen core and mid back muscles: it’s especially important for individuals who’s daily activities entail heavy lifting to be functionally strength training the appropriate muscles in order to avoid overuse injuries. Adding in 10 minutes a day of strength training that targets the core and mid back muscles without involving the upper traps will be key to resolving neck pain. In many people, the upper traps are extremely strong muscles which can make it tricky to complete mid back strengthening programs without unknowingly compensating through your upper traps. The best way to establish a solid strengthening routine with proper form is to spend a few sessions building a program with a personal trainer or physical therapist who can correct and cue you to engage the appropriate muscles for each exercise.