In these days of technology overload and hours upon hours of screen time, it’s no wonder that neck pain ties for No. 2 on the list of chronic conditions among adults in America, alongside migraines.
The impact to energy levels, sleep quality and overall quality of life are undeniable. And with an estimated 70% of people experiencing neck pain at some point in their lives, there are some simple, preventative steps we can take before it’s too late.
The first place to start is assessing your posture. According to Dr. Kevin Sherman of Ironcare Sports Therapy, the majority of neck pain cases are related to static postures.
“When people are sitting at a desk all day, or in front of computers or video games, there is a potential for increased neck pain,” he says. “Any static posture, especially with the head held slightly forward, can strain the muscles of the neck.”
If you are already experiencing neck pain, the first thing to do is rule out what Dr. Sherman calls the “red flag symptoms.” These include tingling, numbness or weakness in the arms or legs.
Shooting pain that radiates from the neck into the extremities is also a red flag. If you experience a fever with neck pain or any red flag symptoms, , seek the care of a physician immediately. If not, relief may be closer than you think.
Take a Microbreak
Research has shown the immense benefits of taking 30- to 60-second microbreaks as a way to prevent the onset or progression of cumulative injuries caused by static postures. A microbreak can be as simple as standing, stretching and a few minutes of walking. “Stand up and move your body briefly,” Dr. Sherman says. “Do anything to interrupt the static posture and give the muscles in your neck and back a break.”
Sleep On It
Sleep-related neck pain is common. It’s often caused by an oversized pillow that prevents the neck from aligning with the rest of the spine. Inspect your pillow and size it up for proper fit and alignment. Ideally, your neck head and spine will be aligned in a straight line to avoid undue stress to the neck muscles and cervical joints, Dr. Sherman says.
Nocturnal neck pain also can stem from a worn-out mattress. If there is a visible dip in the top of the mattress you have slept on for years, it may be time to make the investment in a new, more supportive alternative.
In the winter months, Dr. Sherman also sees an increase in neck pain cases that he attributes to people sleeping in different positions to conserve body heat. Often, these positions place additional stress on the spine. The fix may be as simple as raising the thermostat a degree or two at nighttime.
And then there are the stomach sleepers whose necks extend upward during or to the side during slumber. Both of these sleeping positions can result in undue pressure on the facet joints of the neck. The result will be a stiff neck, with trouble turning your head freely from side to side without pain. Sleeping on your stomach is not always bad, you might just need a thinner pillow to pull it off.
Get an Eye Exam
As simple as it sounds, some static postural issues that affect the neck can be resolved with a new pair of glasses, Dr. Sherman says. If you find yourself creeping closer and closer to the computer screen or your cell phone to see clearly, it may be time for a checkup.
Do’s & Don’ts for Neck Pain
Absent the red flag symptoms described earlier, most cases of neck strain will resolve within a week or so with proper care.
- Cold Therapy. Dr. Sherman recommends applying a cold pack to the affected area for 10 minutes at a time, several times a day. A pack cooled to just 55 degrees in the refrigerator will provide full therapeutic benefits. Avoid frozen ice packs.
- Head Retractions. Stand or sit upright, placing your forefinger on your chin. Retract your neck back with chin straight and hold for two seconds. Repeat 5 times.
- Gentle Active Stretching in the retracted position as described above. Gentle movement in this position can promote blood flow and promote healing. Dr. Sherman recommends simple side-to-side stretches (ear toward shoulder) with only the weight of your head. Hold each stretch for 2 seconds and repeat for 5 repetitions on each side. Don’t hold your head while you stretch the neck, as this can place unnecessary stress on the joints. Dr. Sherman also warns against “rolling” your neck around in a circle, as this can further aggravate an injury and cause additional wear and tear on the joints.
- Wall Angel Exercises. Stand against a wall with your buttocks, shoulders, elbows, fingertips and back of head touching the wall. Slowly glide your hands down the wall, as if you are making a snow angel. Hold for 2 seconds and release the hands back up. Repeat 5 times.
Time to Visit Your Doctor
If neck pain lasts more than a week or is progressively getting worse, it’s time to see your physician.
Dr. Sherman, a sports chiropractic doctor and Active Release Therapy (ART) practitioner, says spinal manipulation is one of the most common treatments for neck pain. This treatment stimulates nerve endings around the joints that cause the muscles to instantaneously relax and release tension.
“ART is also very effective, especially on cases where old injuries have left scar tissue on the neck,” he says. “In these cases, we have the opportunity to greatly increase range of motion, especially if combined with joint manipulation.”
Dr. Sherman is also an advocate of the pain-relieving power of exercise, particularly for pain related to osteoarthritis and postural distortions. “Osteoarthritis will often show up first in the neck,” he says. “It’s a normal part of aging. If we can keep patients active and moving, they have a much better chance of living with less pain.”