Why Does My Neck Hurt and What Can I Do About It?

By: Dale J. Buchberger, PT, DC, CSCS, DACBSP

A day doesn’t go by that, I don’t hear someone say, “my neck hurts”. With this you can see many individuals standing in line at the grocery store rubbing their neck and hoping that this “self massage” will make the pain go away. Or perhaps they will reach for their favorite over the counter “pain pill” or the 21st century version of “mothers little helper” to quote the Rolling Stones. This seems to be more and more common. There are many reasons for this increase in neck pain amongst the technologically advanced countries such as the United States, Canada, Europe, Asia, etc.

According to the University of Illinois, more than 50% of adults have had neck pain during the past year, the incidence of neck pain is increasing in younger ages, females, people who sit at a desk all day, and smokers tend to suffer from neck pain proportionately more, people with chronic neck pain use the health system twice as much as the rest of the population.

It is common knowledge that technology has infiltrated our society and our lives in almost every facet from job to home and social life. Regardless of one’s socioeconomic status technology has found it’s way into our lives. While many people want to put the blame squarely on electronic games there are many other influences that take up much more of our time such as television, home computers, laptop computers, cellular telephone’s, etc. Electronics in their current form cause us to utilize what is known in the ergonomic world as a “head down posture”. It is the chronic use of this head down posture that results in not only increased incidence of neck pain but earlier onset of neck pain during our life span.

If you want a visual of the “head down posture” all you have to do is look out your window and watch someone walking down the street or go to the Fingerlakes or Carousel mall and within 30 seconds or less you will see someone walking and looking “down” into their “smart” phone. This is the “head down posture”. This same posture can be seen in someone in the coffee shop working on his or her laptop or working on his or her desktop computer at home. Having your head down for extended periods of time puts significant amount of stress on the neck. When you combine this with long periods of inactivity the formula is weakness plus stress equals pain.

Neck pain caused by poor posture is simply explained as follows: in an upright position the spinal vertebrae support the weight of the head. Once the head is flexed forward, for instance while using a laptop, the vertebrae no longer support the weight of the head as much. The muscles, tendons, and ligaments of the neck and upper back work harder to hold up the head, which is roughly the weight of a bowling ball or 8-12 pounds. Over time the muscles and other soft tissues in the neck tighten up due to the excessive workload required to hold the head in this “forward head” position. The muscles in the front of the neck become weak from being chronically stretched, and nerve structures are sustained in positions of increased tension. This chronic overload and tightening of the soft tissues may eventually result in reduced blood flow and oxygen to the soft tissues, ultimately causing pain. Additionally the forward head posture will place the neck joints in abnormal positions, which may eventually cause joint pain and muscle weakness. The above scenario will usually manifest as tension headaches and painful “knotty” spots in the neck and upper trapezius muscles (the muscles that run from the neck to the shoulder). It may feel as though just holding up the head is difficult, i.e., the head “feels too heavy for my neck.” Because of this heavy feeling, the person may maintain a slouched posture, which continues the pain cycle.

Some suggestions for preventing posture-related neck pain include: Correct your posture when standing or sitting, adjust your pelvic position, lift your chest gently, nod your chin slightly and relax your shoulders. Ensure your workstation is set up to help you sit properly. Stretch and change position frequently while you are working. Try not to sleep on your stomach, which overextends your neck. Choose a urethane or down pillow for neck support while you sleep. Combat the muscle-tightening effects of stress with relaxation techniques. Exercise regularly to improve muscle tone and posture. Avoid prolonged time spent texting with your head looking down. If your neck pain has lasted more than 30 days you should seek evaluation from your medical doctor, chiropractor or physical therapist. Remember time is money the longer you wait the more it costs!