We casually refer to a minor annoyance in life as a “pain in the neck,” but as anyone with neck pain will tell you, it’s far from minor and much more painful and debilitating than an annoyance.
Currently, one third of us suffer from chronic neck or shoulder pain, and this figure is predicted to increase as computer work, cell phones, and the myriad of other gadgets we now use force us to crane our necks forward for much more of each day than ever before. We will literally be in a world of hurt.
Historically, neck and shoulder pain have been an older person’s complaint, but clinics are experiencing a rise in younger patients with neck and shoulder complaints. The impact that poor posture during tablet computers and smart phone use are having on small children and teenagers is an increasing health problem and one that more parents need to be aware of and manage.
Because many cases of neck pain are related to posture, it can be difficult to distinguish which is which. People may come in with shoulder pain when they really have a neck problem. The reporting system of the body (and patients) can be unreliable so neck and shoulder pain commonly overlap. We can add in neck pain’s connection with headaches, too, to the mix of suffering that’s hard to tease apart.
Understanding some of the basics of the body helps us manage our conditions and treatments more effectively.
By a beautiful design in nature that allows us to turn our head and see in all directions, our neck is engineered to be a bit unstable. Perhaps to balance this, the muscles in the neck are some of the fastest, most forceful muscles in the body, and have some of the greatest endurance of any muscles. The muscles of the head and neck control important, everyday tasks such as facial expressions, talking, chewing and swallowing and even the movement of the eyes.
The neck and shoulders are structured in such a way that they are entirely dependent on alignment and balance between the muscles and fascia that bind them together while allowing for movement.
All this depends on proper posture.
Causes of neck pain
With so many of us gazing into computers or staring down at our smart phones most of the day, it’s no wonder data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that nearly 20% of us have experienced neck pain within the past three months.
Poor posture: Today, poor posture is often called nerd or text neck because so many of us spend hours looking down at our devices now. One recent study showed that 79% of those between the age of 18 and 44 have their cell phone on them almost constantly with only two hours of the waking day spent without the cell phone. Looking down at your phone or tablet has unavoidable consequences. In order to protect themselves from the constant strain of poor posture, muscles harden into tough bands, causing fatigue, spasms and hot, chronic pain along the ridge of the shoulder blades and neck.
The tendency toward poor posture in the upper back from slumping and rounding the shoulders is easy enough and important enough to correct. When we slouch our shoulder blades slide away from the spine and overstretch and weaken muscles, particularly the pectoralis muscles.
Good posture requires conscious correction for only a short time and once the brilliance of adaption has occurred, a good habit is formed and it’s one more area of wellness that we’ve mastered and one less reason for pain.
Here’s what you can do on your own to prevent and treat text neck:
Make sure your work environment allows you to look forward at any screens you use, not down. Hold your phone up in front of your face whenever you can to avoid looking down at it. Take frequent breaks from your devices and walk around every 20 minutes, at least.
Soft tissue injury/Trauma: Muscles, tendons and ligaments in the neck and shoulder area are prone to injury from whiplash and other impact injuries. These conditions can range in severity and be acute or become chronic.
Degenerative diseases/arthritis/degenerative disc disease: Inflammation in joints is painful and restricts movement and mobility, however, it’s important to employ exercise as medicine with arthritis, and degenerative disc conditions, research says. Joints need the flexion caused by proper exercise to remain healthy, but improper movement is painful, so arthritis sufferers tend to err on the wrong side and reduce movement by too much and the stiffness worsens.
Pinched Nerves / Radiculopathy / Thoracic Outlet Syndrome: The pain, numbness and tingling from a nerve being compressed and irritated can be caused by physical overexertion or one of several medical conditions, so establishing cause by a doctor may be helpful. This condition responds well to physical therapy and exercise – see our post on thoracic outlet syndrome.
Fractures: Also called a broken neck, this occurs when one of the seven cervical vertebrae are fractured usually the result of a high-energy trauma such as car accident or a fall. These accidents can have serious consequences because the nerves running through the neck can be impacted or damaged. The first thing to do if you suspect a fracture is to immobilize the neck until x-rays can be reviewed by a physician. Treatment can range from wearing a cervical brace for 60 weeks to spending three months in a rigid cast or some combination of those options. Afterwards, physical therapy and bodywork will aid a full recovery.
Medical conditions: It’s rare, but possible for a medical condition to refer pain up into the neck and shoulder area. Talk to your doctor if no other cause of neck and shoulder pain is identified.
Neck Pain Relief or Prevention?
What’s even better than neck pain relief? Not having pain in the first place! We shouldn’t be sedentary for more than half an hour at a time. Positioning yourself in a certain way for an extended period increases pressure on your spine and decreases mobility. If you require the use of technology all day, take “micro breaks” every 15-20 minutes. Lift your head up and stretch, in order to get your neck and shoulders moving.
Studies have shown that people who take these micro breaks are 21% less likely to suffer from neck and shoulder pain. Help yourself to maintain the health and well-being of your spine and help prevent further postural issues arising. Address any ergonomic issues whether at work with your desk, at home, or in your study.
The body is designed for motion, much like a car. When we leave our car idle in the garage for several days, what happens? The battery needs to be charged. So it is with the body, and zones in the body that are often idle for hours at end, such as the neck and shoulders. So, “Get up and move!”
Finally, if your shoulders and back are tight, you’ll have a hard time eliminating neck pain because your back muscles will be pulling on your neck. The body is an integrated system and we need to treat the whole body when we run into trouble.
For more information on relieving chronic neck pain, contact Comprehensive Pain Management in Attleboro, MA.