Note: The exercises and/or stretches in this blog are not intended to replace the advice of your clinician. If you are unsure, please speak to your clinician before attempting any of the suggestions below.
To protect ourselves and those around us during the pandemic, we have had to alter our everyday experiences including work practices and location. As the pandemic persists, a growing number of people are discovering that working from home can be a real pain in the neck – literally!
Has the previously occasional nagging pain or stiffness in your neck become more focalized within your everyday life? You’re not the only one who’s neck deep in strife – we’re here to help. Let’s get started!
Why does your neck hurt?
The neck is a resilient part of our body that is very responsive to our everyday activity (or inactivity) and stressors. In order to support our heads, weighing an average of 12 pounds (more than a gallon of paint), the neck has a supporting network of muscles and ligaments.
When we sit for extended periods of time, particularly in front of a computer, many of us adopt a posture that includes a forward head and slumped shoulders. This creates a position in which forces around the joints are not optimally balanced and more effort is needed to support our head.
If we maintain this position for long intervals, our body may use pain to get our attention. Fortunately, the onset of pain in this scenario is unlikely related to any damage, but is rather a signal from the brain used to alert us that our limit is being approached. The pain can be a motivation to move.
It is important that we listen to our bodies and take action to address the root of our pain to minimize its recurrence. Remember though, it took time for you to develop neck pain, it will take some time to get better – stick with it and don’t put your neck on the line.
What can you do?
Take charge of your work environment
Check out this great blog on how to improve ergonomics in your home workstation. It demonstrates how you can use everyday items in your home to optimize your workspace in a way that will minimize stress on the body.
Change positions frequently
Unfortunately, this does not refer to curling up in bed to work on a spreadsheet or participating in a meeting while on the couch! Consider modifying your workspace to allow standing breaks by placing your laptop on a stack of old books or a sturdy box.
Another idea for your physical and mental well-being - take a walk! A short, brisk walk at lunch or while on the phone has been shown to be a protective factor in the development of neck pain in office workers and is a great way to clear your mind and help break up the day.
Motion is lotion
If you are experiencing numbness in your neck and face, dizziness, or are having difficulty speaking or swallowing, contact a healthcare provider immediately before trying these movements as this could be a sign of a rare, but serious condition.
While the thought of moving your neck while it is sore may be scary, regular movement is critical in the management of pain. Take a moment to review these movements and perform them anytime your body begins to tell you it’s time to move! Take long, slow, smooth breaths to help release tension from your body and mind as you perform these exercises.
Sitting up tall in a chair, place a finger on your chin as a reference point. Without allowing your chin to drop towards your chest, move your chin straight back until you begin to feel tension in the upper neck or the base of your head. Alternate between holding and releasing the tension (approximately 3 second intervals) in this position for 30 seconds, or 6 breaths.
Shoulder shrug and retraction
Use the same staring position described above, with arms at your side. Elevate your shoulders towards your ears. Then, draw your shoulder blades towards each other before slowly releasing the tension and returning to the start position. Complete 8 repetitions of this exercise, remembering to take slow, smooth breaths as you do.
Neck/upper shoulder stretches
In the same starting position, place one hand behind your back. Gently tilt your head away from the arm behind you until you begin to feel a stretch in the side of your neck. If you feel comfortable, apply a gentle pressure with the other hand as shown. Remember to breathe and hold the stretch for five to eight slow, relaxed breaths. Repeat three times on each side.
Sit up tall and place one hand behind your back. Turn your head to the opposite side and look towards your armpit until you feel a stretch from the back of your head to your shoulder blades. Using your other hand, you may apply a small amount of extra pressure if you feel safe doing so. Remind yourself to breathe and hold the stretch for five to eight slow, smooth breaths. Repeat three times on each side.
Lower neck to collarbone stretch
Place one hand near the base of the neck on the collarbone as shown. Bend your neck to the opposite side while lifting your chin up, looking “up and away” from your hand. As with the other stretches, remember to breathe, and hold for five to eight breaths. Repeat three times on each side.
Neck pain in our home offices is an unfortunate reality of the pandemic. The good news is that this does not mean our necks have become damaged. For many of us rather, more time at home has meant more time sitting – often in front of a screen in a sustained position.
The pain is your brain’s way of reminding you that movement is an important part of wellness, and your neck and shoulders are no exception. Listen to what your body has to say and make movement and stretching a staple in your workday routine.
This blog was written by Aaron Hart - a Physiotherapy student at Queen's University.