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How To Effectively Manage Your Neck Pain

Thomas Pinna
|
April 19, 2021

If you’re reading this, you’re hopefully aware of our previous blog “Why Does My Neck Always Hurt?” and, hopefully, have a better understanding of what causes neck pain. You’ll also have understood that there isn’t a single cause for the pain that has been bothering you for such a long time. Instead, we blame a combination of factors that interact and influence each other in our experience of pain. These include the inevitable forward head posture caused by being at your desk for hours on end, changes in physical routines since the pandemic, things that define your pain like stress, anxiety, uncertainty, fear, dissatisfaction with your job and so on.

In this blog we will endeavour to answer the next obvious question: how do we manage all of these elements? And how can I integrate them in one strategy plan that will provide me with sustainable and long lasting solutions? Keep reading to find out.

Posture at our laptops

Muscles are resilient. Joints and ligaments are very strong. But when subjected to the same constant pressure and repetitive movements day in and day out, with our heads resisting gravity’s downward pull, the neck extending to keep screen-level at eyesight, the shoulders creeping forwards towards the keyboard, even resilient muscles and strong ligaments and joints will start to tire causing pain.

So what can we do to prevent this occurring? It’s simple... movement. ‘Easier said than done’, you may think. Bearing in mind that we don’t want you to compromise on concentration and productivity, here we provide some ideas to achieve this objective:

Variability

Posture variability is key. As you know, what really strains your neck muscles is prolonged sitting in one fixed position. Your muscles, joints and ligaments all crave movement. Have your neck facing down, then upwards, then straight ahead… just move it around! Next up, place your laptop on a high surface and work whilst standing then, once tired, work from your bed or sofa for a bit. Just don’t fall asleep!

You may think that changing position this often will take up time and reduce concentration… but only if done unprepared! Make a little plan beforehand so that you know in advance how you’re going to set up your workstation to regularly change position.

Neck positioning

If you really cannot avoid sitting in the same position, then some neck positions are better than others. A straight neck position will allow you to distribute the weight of the head more evenly through the vertebrae of the neck, thus reducing the work our neck muscles need to do. In order to achieve this, make sure your screen is level with the eyes: if too low, use books to raise the level of the screen or sit on a higher chair if the screen is too high up. The neck should not be facing downwards nor upwards, but straight ahead. 

Neck Supports

It is debatable whether using neck supports is useful or not. We want the neck to be moving more, stronger and not reliant on external support. But resting your neck once in a while can’t do any harm.

Ergonomic chairs with neck supports may work well in the short term, temporarily giving some respite to your neck muscles under load... however, the risks of becoming dependent on them may outweigh the benefits. Indeed, having this seemingly easy option may discourage us from making those important, but also harder, work-life adjustments like changing position more often or going for an extra walk. An alternative option to expensive chairs can be simply moving to a position that allows us to rest our head against a support, be it a wall or a cushion. Include this in your routine of postures to change throughout the working day. 

Standing desk

A standing desk is a very good option to add some diversity in our work routine but should not be seen as a remedy on its own. We often think standing desks are only useful for our lower backs, that is a mistake. Standing allows the whole of our body to play an active role in sharing weight. Your mid and low back are free to move and take up some of the load from the neck; moreover, you'll be able to sway, twist and turn your spine more regularly, getting some of that healthy movement back in. But be cautious, the same thing applies to this… standing too long in one position may lead to overloading joints and ligaments as well. Movement is key.

Do you need to buy a standing desk? Not necessarily, we have seen great creativity when it comes to recreating this in the home office. Some people have been using their ironing boards at adjustable heights, others have cardboard boxes turned upside down on their tables. 

Stress and de-stressors

The neck and shoulders are where all our tension from negative thoughts and stress focus, like a peacock exposing its feathers or a monkey raising the hair on its nape, the neck-shoulder area is primed to tense during emotional situations. Whereas before the pandemic we had our personal strategies to manage stress, Covid-19 turned the tables. The lack of social and outdoor distractions, the loss of separation between home and work environments and the uncertainty about the future have added elements that have caught us unprepared. Now more than ever, finding effective ways to de-stress is imperative. 

Mindfulness

Mindfulness has been shown to be an effective tool at reducing stress, anxiety and pain. Mindfulness encourages us to return with our mind to the present moment, being more aware and less judgmental of the thoughts passing by and reconnecting with our bodily sensation and feelings. When in a state of mindfulness, here and now, negative thoughts tend to be less impactful, stress becomes more manageable and our body feels better. Read more in our blog “Why This is the Year of Mindfulness”.

Separate home and work

Make sure you can clearly distinguish between your home and work environments, even if it’s just a visual scene change. Until the pandemic hit, home was the place for safety, play and relaxation, whilst work is where we’re asked to thrive and perform at our best. Now, the two seem to have blended into one another and have lost these dedicated roles in our lives. Here are some quick tips to re-establish lost boundaries:

  1. Never slip-out of bed and onto your laptop. Make sure to fit between ‘wake up’ time and work a consistent ritual; this may be a slow breakfast, brewing your coffee, taking a morning walk or meditating a little.
  2. Likewise, do not end your work day by going straight into your home activities. Before jumping on the sofa or having a meal, have a de-stressing routine to transition from work-mode to home-life. This can be another walk around the block, going to the shop, a yoga or workout session, your choice.
  3. Try not to be working whilst doing home-life activities, ie. cooking a meal, eating, doing chores, gardening or tidying, have dedicated times and spaces to separate these activities.

Understanding pain

In most cases, neck pain is not due to anything serious. Nevertheless, it is worth checking in with a healthcare professional for peace of mind. Once you’ve done this, understanding how pain works is a powerful tool to make us more aware of why things hurt and what to do about it. Less worry is a good place to start for managing pain. Read more in “Why Does My Neck Always Hurt?”.

Your body is strong and healthy

It is crucial to understand that our muscles, ligaments and joints are strong and healthy. It is our pain system that we need to make “less protective”. Understanding this will give us a confident standpoint from which to start making changes in our everyday life.

Reshaping work routine

To break the brain’s association between a set working routine and pain, try to apply some of this tips:

  1. Take shorter but more frequent walks and breaks throughout the day instead of longer but fewer ones
  2. Regularly change the positioning of your desk and chair in your office (monthly, weekly or daily)
  3. Work from a different room - or switch between rooms in the same working day
  4. Start working some days from the office as soon as it is possible
  5. From particularly stressful tasks, find a de-stressing practice that you can always do beforehand (not afterwards), ie. mindfulness, walk, listening to your favourite song etc.

Neck exercises and stretches 

Neck exercises can provide you with a good deal of temporary relief, and thus should be added to the other lifestyle changes. Done in isolation, however, they will always have limited efficacy as they cannot replace the benefits of fluid/natural movement and stress-reduction.

The twizzle

The 'twizzle' is a very useful and quick exercise - standing and oscillating your arms round like a Chinese pellet drum whilst keeping your head forward. Start small, focus on letting your arms and shoulders be as relaxed as possible and gradually increase the swing. Although not apparent, this exercise allows for a lot of great movement to go through your neck whilst involving the rest of your spine and challenging our sense of coordination.


Therapeutic dance

Probably the best form of exercise is that which can bring us both psychological and physical benefits. To this aim, a funky neck activity to break the working day can be to queue up a few of your favourite songs, take a couple of deep breaths to slow down, and start mindlessly dancing to them. Make the dance full body and fluid, try focusing on stretching and moving those areas that feel stiff and sore… quirky, yeah? Just make sure no one is around to make you feel weird, for the rest, enjoy the moment, this will help mentally as well as physically. Repeat as many times as comfortable throughout the day.

Desk-based stretches

If, instead, you prefer a series of repetitive stretches, here are some simple ones:

  1. Trapezius stretch: bring your chin to the mid-level of your collar bone on the left, place your left hand on top you your head and gently encourage your chin to get closer to the collar bone by pulling your head downwards - repeat on the other side.
  2. Platysma stretch: hands firmly holding the top of the chest muscles on the right and chin rolling towards the left shoulder, try getting your chin closer and closer to the top of the left shoulder - repeat on the opposite side.
  3. Shoulder rolls: roll shoulders forward for a few times and roll them back in a slow, controlled and soothing motion.
  4. Neck rolls: bend your chin to your chest and slowly roll it to the left and to the right. Avoid extending the neck backwards. Repeat as many times as comfortable.

Osteopathy

It is easy to give you a checklist of options to manage the pain by yourself. The reality, however, is that neck pain can feel overwhelming and you may have the feeling of not knowing where to start. Osteopathy is a great place to start. 

Osteopaths use manual techniques such as massage, joint mobilisations and manipulations to effectively reduce pain. This is done in combination with a sound understanding of your whole body and lifestyle to create a complete recovery plan. Once the pain is no longer overwhelming, and you feel confident and empowered over it, we can make all those beneficial lifestyle adjustments that can guarantee you a comfortable neck in the long run.

Start making a meaningful change today! Modifying your work routine, adopting de-stressing strategies and increasing physical activity levels is not something to do overnight. Changes may be slow to show, finding your own balance may not be easy, but you are building solid foundations for the future. A future in which work life does not necessarily equate to pain and suffering.

By 

Thomas Pinna

Thomas completed a master’s degree in Osteopathy at Swansea University. He explores the interrelations between our physical and emotional health, and the neuroscience behind it, which led to publishing a research study in the renowned journal Frontier in Psychology. After graduating, Thomas joined the medical-equip Medical Volunteer International, providing Osteopathy for asylum-seekers at the Moria refugee camp. This experience strengthened his resolution to end health inequalities as it is often the case.

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