Neck and upper shoulder pain are very common, affecting about 50-70% of people at some point in their lives. It can come from whiplash or other trauma, but 85% of the time it has a mechanical cause often due to how we sit and work at a computer.
The job your neck has to perform is relatively simple. It is rarely asked to lift anything other than its own weight. It is however heavy (about the weight of a bowling ball) and is balanced on top of your spine (imagine a bowling ball resting on top of a 6” stick). If it starts to lean in any direction it takes a lot of work to hold it up!
Here are 9 simple suggestions to help your neck pain.
Many of the muscles of your neck can be involved with breathing, especially forced inhalation. To combat this, every hour set your watch to remind yourself to pause and take 5 deep easy breaths. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Focus on a full exhalation and then pause for 2-3 seconds before taking a deep relaxed inhalation again.
2. Use the head rest in your car and set up the mirrors so your head can RELAX against it
If your mirrors are positioned correctly they will be a constant reminder to let your neck relax back against the headrest.
3. DO NOT use your neck to lift your body and turn yourself in bed
People often just wake up with neck pain one morning. Watching how these people roll over, they often use their necks to lift their shoulders and chest before they roll. 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.
4. Carry backpacks on both shoulders
Carrying a backpack on one shoulder causes your shoulders to become uneven and your neck to sidebend. It also causes the full load of the backpack to be held up by just one shoulder. Share the load and keep your head and shoulders level by using both shoulder straps.
5. Have your eyes checked
If you are straining to see, you will often find that you try to move your head and neck closer to whatever you are looking at. This causes far more work for your neck by stressing muscles, joints and discs.
6. Check your computer workstation
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 often are within easy reach and things you use less often can be slightly further away. Have a comfortable chair, but do try to get up at least 1x/hour to move around. When you sit your head and neck should RELAX on top of your body and not advance toward the screen or look down for extended periods.
7. 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.
8. 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.
9. 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. Since it is such a major muscle in your head/neck region if it is postured correctly this will positively influence other muscles and joints of your neck too.
Some common causes of back pain are:
Nerve radicular pain:
This often feels like a stabbing/electric shock/deep aching/worst pain ever felt. The pain typically travels down your legs along the path of the nerve in a narrow band-like distribution. Lifting, twisting or extending your back increases the pain. Resting or laying down ease the pain. You may feel pins and needles along the nerve path and you may also have weakness. In severe cases there may be bowel or bladder problems.
Joint or facet pain:
Feels like a deep to dull aching and stiffness – sometimes there might be a sharp catch in your back. The pain will be located in your back and possibly across your buttocks but NOT down your legs. Pain is worsened by extending your back, twisting and sometimes by bending forward. Feels better with movement and exercise, especially stretching.
Comes on slowly. Feels like a dull ache to a severe deep ache. There may be a heavy feeling, weakness or clumsiness. Both legs may go numb and be weak. Pain is made worse by extending your back. Feels better to bend forward.
Muscle tear or pull:
This happens as a traumatic injury. It feels like a localized sharp deep ache right over the muscle that was injured. There may be weakness and swelling or even bruising. It feels worse if you try to work the injured muscle. Feels better with ice and rest.
Feels like a dull ache in your back and possibly down your leg. Bending forward and twisting make the pain worse. Rest and extending feels better.
Feels like a dull ache that is directly over the injury site. To ease pain avoid positions that you feel are stretching the ligaments – end ranges are often the worst.
Feels like a piercing pain that is very localized over the bony spine. Can cause nerve pain. Bending or twisting aggravate pain as does laying down.