Neck pain can be such a pain in the neck. This phrase likely came about because neck pain is so common. There are a lot of things that can cause neck pain but some of the most common seem to be poor posture, prolonged positions, and car accidents.
Throughout our lives, our spine develops certain curves that are meant to optimize our function. When we stray from this ideal posture, for example slouching while we sit or poking our head out when we’re on the computer or our phone, we are putting ourselves at risk for pain. It is well studied that poor posture can lead to pain, specifically neck pain. Our heads are surprisingly heavy. Our heads are meant to be carried somewhat in line with our shoulders. When we have bad posture, we are increasing the amount of work the muscles have to do to hold our head up. Having to hold your head up like this puts strain in the joints, muscles and ligaments in the neck which can lead you to experience pain.
We’re all a little bit guilty of sitting or standing with bad posture from time to time, but some of the highest occurrences of posture-related neck pain are seen in office workers. People who work in an office at a desk are at high risk of neck pain because of something called ergonomics. Ergonomics is a term that refers to comfort of the position and equipment in a workplace. There are many aspects of a desktop workspace that could be well or poorly positioned to contribute to the risk of neck pain. Poor positioning of the items on a desktop, and even the chair we sit in, can lead to poor posture. But, ergonomics doesn’t just affect people who work in an office. Having a good ergonomic set up while using your computer at school or at home can help you reduce the risk of neck pain.
Another common cause of neck pain is repetitive movements. This type of neck pain is typically experienced by people who have more labour-intensive jobs. Repetitive movements, especially with heavy loads, test the limits of our muscle strength in our neck, upper back, and shoulders. This goes for any part of our bodies, but if we don’t have the muscle strength to perform the task the way we are asking it to perform the task, the muscles can become irritated and painful. This is especially true when we are performing the task with improper technique or poor posture. The way we address this is by correcting technique and making the muscles needed for the task stronger. We often also refer to pain related to repetitive movements as overuse.
According to the Government of Canada, there were over 100,000 car accidents in Canada (excluding Quebec) in 2020 that lead to at least minor injury. Car accidents can lead to many different injuries in many different areas of the body and are sometimes dependent on the severity of the crash. Even minor car accidents can cause neck pain. Because the only thing in our upper body that is not strapped down by a seatbelt is our head and neck, they can be more susceptible to injury. When our head and neck are subject to a quick acceleration or deceleration force, we call it whiplash. Whiplash can also happen from activities other than car accidents. While whiplash is occurring, our muscles contract to protect the joints and ligaments from injury.
Sometimes the force from the crash is higher than the muscles can resist, which can lead to muscle, ligament, or bone injuries. Even during a minor accident, the muscles have been working hard to protect our neck from injury and become upset as well. We call this muscle guarding. The best treatment for muscle guarding in the early days after the accident is light movement and general rest. But, if you rest too long, the muscles can start to lose the muscle strength that they had before the accident and you can have lingering pain for longer than normal injury healing timelines. This persistent neck pain can be explained similarly to posture-related and repetitive movement type neck pain. Our neck muscles no longer have the strength to perform their usual tasks and they start to become upset. The best way to treat neck pain from whiplash injury is to restrengthen our muscles.
The best medicine for most things is prevention. This means taking care of our bodies before we have pain or injuries. We can prevent most types of neck pain by improving our posture, our ergonomic setup and strength training. To check your posture, either back up against a wall or lie flat on the floor. Your calfs, buttocks, shoulder blades, and head should be touching the wall or floor. There should be a little bit of space between your lower back and the wall/floor and your neck and the wall/floor. Of course, this won’t work perfectly for everyone because we come in many different body types. Another, but slightly more complicated way you can check your posture is by comparing certain landmarks on the body to a plumb line or a string hanging straight down from the ceiling. See the image below to help you with this. This is the average ideal posture. Having a posture like this can prevent neck pain from coming on in the first place.
But what can we do when we already have neck pain? Like mentioned above, it’s partially dependent on how neck pain started in the first place. Improving poor posture is often the first step. Improving an ergonomic setup and correcting the technique of repetitive or labour intensive jobs can also help treat existing neck pain. To help maintain better posture and improve work capacity, we need to strengthen our posture muscles. When we strengthen our posture muscles, we typically target the deep stabilizing muscles in our neck, and the muscles around our shoulder blades. We want to strengthen the posture muscles so that it’s easier to maintain good posture. We also want to make sure the joints in our upper back, neck and shoulders are moving well. Try these exercises to help improve your posture and start strengthening your posture muscles.