I’ve been seeing a fair number of people in clinic lately presenting with neck pain. They may also have headaches, upper back, shoulder or arm pain. I have written about it before, but some things bear repeating! So, I thought I’d share with you the most common reason it crops up, and a few ideas on how to deal with it.
Neck pain can have a number of root causes, but undoubtedly the number one reason is to do with posture. The neck is really mobile – it’s designed to let the head move in a huge range of directions. It also has to cope with the weight of the head (roughly 4-5kg). That weight should perch nicely on top of the neck, but very often I see people who hold their head too far forward. That hugely increases the strain on the muscles, ligaments and joints of the neck (imagine holding a bowling ball out at an angle – your arm is going to start aching pretty quickly!)
Why do so many people have a forward head posture?
Lots of reasons: concentrating on screens, slumping on the sofa, stiffness further down the spine, chronic stress and poor breathing patterns. (For a really great article on the “vicious cycle” of neck pain, poor breathing and poor sleep, see the link below1).
What can you do to ease your neck pain and stop it coming back?
Learn how to be aware of your posture
- Sit in an upright chair. Wiggle right back so you’re as far in to it as you can be. Place both feet flat on the floor and rest your hands on your lap. Roll your shoulders back a few times and relax them. Now, take a deep breath in through your nose, right into the depths of your tummy, so you can feel your mid-back pressing into the back of the chair. As you breathe out, stretch upward from the crown of your head, and let your chin tuck gently in as you do, lengthening your neck. Repeat this a couple of times, breathing slowly. Practice every day – your body will learn to recognise this “neutral” position.
- When at your desk or in your car, adopt your good, neutral position and then adjust your mirrors or monitor to that position. Every so often, check that you can still see clearly in the mirror, or you can still see that mark on the wall behind the top of your monitor. If you can’t, reset your position.
- Sit at your desk and rest your forearms on the desk. Are you having to hunch your shoulders? If so, adjust your chair so it’s higher. If this means your feet can’t rest comfortably on the floor, use a footstool.
- Many sofa seats are too deep to allow you to sit with your back supported – if this is true for you, use cushions to support your back.
- Make sure you have regular eye tests – your body will prioritize good vision, and if that means craning your head forward to look at your screen, your neck will suffer.
- When you’re driving (especially if you’re finding it stressful), every so often, drop your shoulders, lengthen your neck and press your upper back and the back of your head into your seat / headrest, and take a deep, slow breath into your tummy. It’s a great tension-reliever.
Movement is key – stretch and mobilise your neck
- Stretch the muscles under the base of your skull by tucking your chin in, then place a hand on the top of your head and use a tiny amount of pressure to tuck that chin in a little further. These should be very small movements. Hold the stretch for 20-30 seconds.
- For the side of your neck, tuck your chin in slightly, then drop your right ear towards your right shoulder. Place your right hand over the top of your head just above your left ear. With a push of NO MORE THAN HALF-STRENGTH, push your head up into your hand, with the hand resisting the movement. Push for the count of 8, then relax and let your head drop slightly further towards the right shoulder. Repeat a further two times, then do the same for the other side.
- To mobilise your neck, keep looking directly ahead, but retract your face as far as you can. You can gently push on your chin to aid the stretch.
- Try head slides – looking straight ahead, slide your head as far as you can to the left and the right, without bending your neck.
- There are usually a combination of factors involving the spine, pelvis or legs that may be contributing to your neck pain. A good osteopath, chiropractor, or physiotherapist should be able to assess and treat these issues. Without addressing these, you’ll be fighting a losing battle!
- There are, of course, many reasons for neck pain, and not all of them are postural. Some causes need medical attention. If you’re not sure what’s going on, seek advice from a professional.