We casually refer to a minor annoyance in life as a “pain in the neck,” but as anyone with neck pain will tell you, it’s far from minor and much more painful and debilitating than an annoyance. If you’ve got it, you want relief now and I’m going to show you how to get it. I was forced to become an expert in chronic muscle and tendon pain to cope with muscle tightness and tendonitis from Lyme disease. For years, I would pull a muscle about every other month which sometimes left me in bed for three days at a time (often from neck pain). Once, I pulled a muscle after sneezing! Finally though, I’ve got it licked and I want to share with you what I learned.
Currently, one third of us suffer from chronic neck or shoulder pain, and this figure is predicted to increase as computer work, cell phones, and the myriad of other gadgets we now use force us to crane our necks forward for much more of each day than ever before. We will literally be in a world of hurt.
Historically, neck and shoulder pain have been an older person’s complaint, but clinics are experiencing a rise in younger patients with neck and shoulder complaints. According to Elite Myotherapy, “The impact that poor posture during tablet computers and smart phone use are having on small children and teenagers is an increasing health problem and one that more parents need to be aware of and manage.”
Because many cases of neck pain are related to posture, it can be difficult to distinguish which is which. Shoulder specialist, Eric Ricchetti, MD, of Cleveland Clinic’s Department of Orthapedaedic Surgery, states that, “People may come in with shoulder pain when they really have a neck problem.” The reporting system of the body (and patients) can be unreliable so neck and shoulder pain commonly overlap. We can add in neck pain’s connection with headaches, too, to the mix of suffering that’s hard to tease apart.
Anatomy of the neck and shoulders
Understanding some of the basics of the body helps us manage our conditions and treatments more effectively.
By a beautiful design in nature that allows us to turn our head and see in all directions, our neck is engineered to be a bit unstable. Perhaps to balance this, the muscles in the neck are some of the fastest, most forceful muscles in the body, and have some of the greatest endurance of any muscles. The muscles of the head and neck control important, everyday tasks such as facial expressions, talking, chewing and swallowing and even the movement of the eyes.
The neck and shoulders are structured in such a way that they are entirely dependent on alignment and balance between the muscles and fascia that bind them together while allowing for movement.
All this depends on proper posture. But these days, who’s got proper posture? Maybe someone living in the jungle in Africa who doesn’t have a cell phone and laptop. Below, I’m going to show you how you can begin to correct your posture.
First, let’s look at the tough and resilient design around your neck. The bones of the chest and upper back work together to form a strong, protective cage around the vital thoracic organs such as the heart and lungs. This durable cage is the anchor of our neck, shoulders and head and is composed of powerful muscles designed to protect those vital organs and vulnerable systems in our bodies.
The cervical spine, collarbone (clavicle), and shoulder blade (scapula, or scap) form the skeletal infrastructure of the neck and shoulders. The neck is formed by seven bones stacked one on top of the other.
The trapezius (traps), levator scapulae, scalene and the sternocleidomastoid (SCM) muscles form the muscular structure of the neck and shoulders. These upper back, shoulder and neck muscles travel in all directions which allows for greater range of motion and movement in the neck and shoulders. When poor posture, injury, or trauma disrupt the balance between muscles and fascia, bones are forced out of position, causing muscles to spasm, range of motion to be limited and pain to develop as cervical and other nerves are affected.
Causes of neck pain
With so many of us gazing into computers or staring down at our smart phones most of the day, it’s no wonder data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that nearly 20 percent of us have experienced neck pain within the past three months.
Poor posture: Today, poor posture is often called nerd or text neck because so many of us spend hours looking down at our devices now. One recent study showed that 79% of those between the age of 18 and 44 have their cell phone on them almost constantly with only two hours of the waking day spent without the cell phone. Looking down at your phone or tablet has unavoidable consequences. In order to protect themselves from the constant strain of poor posture, muscles harden into tough bands, causing fatigue, spasms and hot, chronic pain along the ridge of the shoulder blades and neck.
The tendency toward poor posture in the upper back from slumping and rounding the shoulders is easy enough and important enough to correct. When we slouch our shoulder blades slide away from the spine and overstretch and weaken muscles, particularly the pectoralis muscles.
Good posture requires conscious correction for only a short time and once the brilliance of adaption has occurred, a good habit is formed and it’s one more area of wellness that we’ve mastered and one less reason for pain.
If you want professional help with this, consider seeing an osteopath, rolfer, chiropracter or other bodyworker. I’ve seen quite a few myself and if you’ve got the money, it’s a great advantage. Here’s what you can do on your own to prevent and treat text neck:
- Make sure your work environment allows you to look forward at any screens you use, not down. I use a standing desk for that and it works well.
- Hold your phone up in front of your face whenever you can to avoid looking down at it.
- Take frequent breaks from your devices and walk around every 20 minutes, at least.
Soft tissue injury/Trauma: Muscles, tendons and ligaments in the neck and shoulder area are prone to injury from whiplash and other impact injuries. These conditions can range in severity and be acute or become chronic.
Degenerative diseases/arthritis/degenerative disc disease: Inflammation in joints is painful and restricts movement and mobility, however, it’s important to employ exercise as medicine with arthritis, and degenerative disc conditions, research says. Joints need the flexion caused by proper exercise to remain healthy, but improper movement is painful, so arthritis sufferers tend to err on the wrong side and reduce movement by too much and the stiffness worsens.
A great example of exercise as medicine for arthritis sufferers is Eddie, the otter at the Oregon Zoo. Eddie was diagnosed with arthritis in his elbows and shoots hoops to treat the condition. Game time is not part of a show, it’s Eddie’s behind-the-scenes therapy.
Pinched Nerves / Radiculopathy / Thoracic Outlet Syndrome: The pain, numbness and tingling from a nerve being compressed and irritated can be caused by physical overexertion or one of several medical conditions, so establishing cause by a doctor may be helpful. This condition responds well to physical therapy and exercise – see our post on thoracic outlet syndrome.
Fractures: Also called a broken neck, this occurs when one of the seven cervical vertebrae are fractured usually the result of a high-energy trauma such as car accident or a fall. These accidents can have serious consequences because the nerves running through the neck can be impacted or damaged. The first thing to do if you suspect a fracture is to immobilize the neck until x-rays can be reviewed by a physician. Treatment can range from wearing a cervical brace for 60 weeks to spending three months in a rigid cast or some combination of those options. Afterwards, physical therapy and bodywork will aid a full recovery.
Medical conditions: It’s rare, but possible for a medical condition to refer pain up into the neck and shoulder area. Talk to your doctor if no other cause of neck and shoulder pain is identified.
Treatments for neck pain
Relieving pain, stiffness and tension in the neck can range from simple, short-term treatments, such as RICE, or over-the-counter pain remedies, to long-term, continuous therapies, such as myofascial release, or regular exercises to keep the neck structure flexible. We all know the ever increasing risks of medicine so we are better off with other treatments.
RICE is almost always a front-line treatment for soft tissue injury. Rest, ice, compression and elevation continue to be therapeutic throughout most healing processes.
Myofascial release: Massaging the neck regularly goes a long way in reducing pain, stiffness and limited mobility. It’s difficult to do on your own and that’s why I invented the Neck-Track. Now I get relief from neck pain at home, any time and no longer have any fear about muscle pulls. They just don’t happen when you treat your neck pain as soon as you notice it coming on…
Cervical traction: This is neck stretch often performed by osteopaths and other bodyworkers that I’ve always found very pleasant. You can do it at home on your own too as demonstrated in the video below. You’ll find lots of gadgets for sale of varying complexity to help you do the same thing. The goal of neck traction whether done with a therapists hands, a towel or a special device is decompression of the vertebrae.
Light Therapy: Photo-biostimulation is a non-invasive therapy using light or near infrared light energy that causes tissues in the body to exhibit specific complex biochemical responses, essentially healing the injured tissues.
The technology is being used in the form of lasers and LEDs by physiotherapists, physical therapists and sports medicine specialists to treat a wide variety of acute and chronic musculoskeletal injuries and pain.
Exercise: Exercise is medicine. More and more we are seeing doctors refer neck pain sufferers to physical therapists, personal trainers and fitness specialists for treatment in alleviating symptoms. The reason is because it works – the body is designed for motion!
TENS: Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation devices are an effective, non-invasive pain therapy that can be used as often as needed and provide considerable. Using electrical stimulation to treat pain dates back to Ancient Rome, when they would stand on electrical fish at the seashore; thankfully, the method has greatly improved, but even Benjamin Franklin endorsed the use of electrical stimulation to treat pain.
Grounding: There is nothing new about the benefits of connecting with the earth, except that now we have scientific proof of its merits. We all need to ‘get back to nature’ to improve our overall well-being, as well as treat pain.
Watsu: This aquatic therapy is a relatively new treatment performed by a certified practitioner who cradles the body as it is moved and stretched through the water. If you are fortunate enough to have a Watsu practitioner in your area, check it out. If not, just floating in a pool of water or even your bathtub can provide relief.
Attitude: Last, but far from least and as effective as any other treatment for pain, is our attitude. Positive thinking is not a platitude or for the cheerful dispositions, science tells us. Recent studies indicate that the ability to use thoughts to regulate perceptions of pain employs a different pathway in the brain than the route used to send pain signals to the brain. This explains how we can keep going at times, despite physical pain. Scientists call it cognitive self-regulation; chronic pain sufferers call it nothing short of a miracle.
Exercise Sports Science of Australia (ESSA) states that we shouldn’t be sedentary for more than half an hour at a time. Positioning yourself in a certain way for an extended period increases pressure on your spine and decreases mobility. If you require the use of technology all day, take “micro breaks” every 15-20 minutes. Lift your head up and stretch, in order to get your neck and shoulders moving.
Studies have shown that people who take these micro breaks are 21% less likely to suffer from neck and shoulder pain. Help yourself to maintain the health and well-being of your spine and help prevent further postural issues arising. Address any ergonomic issues whether at work with your desk, at home, or in your study.
The body is designed for motion, much like a car. When we leave our car idle in the garage for several days, what happens? The battery needs to be charged. So it is with the body, and zones in the body that are often idle for hours at end, such as the neck and shoulders. So, in the immortal words of health guru Jack LaLanne, “Get up and move!”
Finally, if your shoulders and back are tight, you’ll have a hard time eliminating neck pain because your back muscles will be pulling on your neck. The body is an integrated system and we need to treat the whole body when we run into trouble. Here’s how I relieve tension in my back and shoulders:
Tell us about your pain in the neck!
Please share your story in the comments — what got you into trouble and what tools / techniques you’ve tried…