With more and more people working from home and sitting at a desk, instances of neck and shoulder pain are on the rise. Many people make the mistake of accommodating their body to their workspace rather than adjusting their workspace to fit their body’s needs. For example, you might be straining to see a computer or monitor that is too far away or too low, which is messing with your posture and leading to pain.
Working at a desk is not the only type of job that can lead to neck and shoulder pain. Jobs that are active, high-paced, and require carrying heavy loads or driving for long periods of time can cause pain in these areas as well.
How Poor Posture Causes Neck and Shoulder Pain
Overall, it is more about what kind of posture you are holding when you go about your day-to-day activities than it is about what kind of job you are doing. Poor posture is a primary cause of neck pain because it strains the muscles and ligaments that support the neck and can lead to injury. The most common example of poor posture that many people resort to is the head-and-shoulders forward posture.
Poor posture can affect your neck and shoulder muscles in the following ways:
Back or Neck Injuries
Poor posture might seem harmless at first, but if it becomes a habit, it can affect your entire body. This includes the muscles, nerves, connective tissues, joints, and spinal disks. Muscle or strength imbalance is a major cause of back or neck injuries. This can occur from repetitive movements or when your body tries to compensate for an imbalance.
What you might not expect is that a surprising cause of TMJ is poor posture. Forward head posture, for example, can cause TMJ because it places tension on the jaw muscles. It is a problem that goes full circle because TMJ can lead to shoulder and neck pain. In order to allow proper chewing, the jaw muscles must work overtime while keeping the head posture in balance. When these muscles become fatigued, it sends pain down the neck, shoulders, and back.
Muscle Spasms and Pinched Nerves
A muscle spasm in the neck feels like a sudden, sharp pain throughout the neck, deep in the muscle tissue. The affected muscle might feel hard and be difficult to move. Muscle spasms in the neck are usually caused by bad posture. This can also lead to pinched nerves in the neck. Signs and symptoms of a pinched nerve include sharp, aching, or burning pain that radiates throughout the body. In addition to improving your posture, one of the best ways to treat this issue is to provide rest in the affected area.
Arthritis of the Neck
When you have poor posture, you are forced to overwork the muscles in the neck and back. Over time, your immune system sends inflammation to the area that can lead to arthritis. Most adults 60 years and older have a degenerative type of neck arthritis. Pain that is associated with this condition can range from mild to severe. Symptoms include headaches, grinding or popping when turning the neck, muscle spasms, difficulty walking, weakness in hands or legs, and loss of balance.
Radiculopathy and myelopathy are also common in patients with arthritis of the neck. Radiculopathy affects the spinal nerve root, which is the part of the nerve that is connected to the main spinal cord. Myelopathy is a disease process that affects the spinal cord. Symptoms include compressed spinal nerve roots, pain, radiculopathy, numbness, and weakness. In addition to improving posture, there are specific exercises that can relieve pain and work to strengthen and stretch weakened muscles. Examples of this include posture therapy or traction to stretch the joints and muscles of the neck.
How to Improve Your Posture
Because posture is so tied to neck and shoulder pain, one of the best ways to alleviate pain and loosen these muscles is to improve your posture. According to the National Institutes of Health, poor posture is a major culprit in back problems that strike over 80% of all Americans at some point throughout their lives. There are some simple ways to fix this problem if you are able to catch yourself making posture mistakes.
Some of the best practices for improving your posture include:
When you slouch, you put extra stress on your spine. This also strains the bones, muscles, and joints that are needed to hold the backbone in place. The issues that slouching causes goes beyond your backbone. Slouching also jams the organs together and makes it more difficult for air to enter the lungs and for the intestines to function properly. This can cause digestion and respiratory issues. Avoiding slouching is key to spinal and overall health.
Stand Up Tall
A good practice for standing up tall is to keep your knees slightly bent and keep feet shoulder-width apart. Allow your arms to hang naturally at the sides of the body and stand straight and tall with the shoulders pulled down and backwards. You want to keep your feet grounded, center your pelvis, open your torso, and level your head. When you stand tall, your chest is able to fully expand, which allows you to breathe better. Standing tall will not only alleviate neck and shoulder pain, but it will also allow more oxygen to reach the body with each breath, reduce anxiety, and improve confidence.
How to Alleviate Neck and Shoulder Pain
Sometimes, no matter how much effort you put into improving your posture, you will still experience some neck and shoulder pain. Before you begin physical therapy exercises, there are some simple steps you can take to relieve the pain on your own. Some examples of helpful self-care measures include:
- Applying cold - This is a great way to numb any early acute pain and reduce inflammation.
- Taking over-the-counter pain relief medication - If it is right for the patient, this can be a small but helpful way to control mild to moderate pain.
- Using a neck collar - A neck collar, or a cervical collar, can be used to support your spinal cord and head. While this option should only be used on a short-term basis, it can help the muscles that are in pain rest and help avoid the wear and tear that comes from overuse.
- Applying heat - Heat works to alleviate neck pain by loosening the muscles and alleviating stiffness. You can apply heat in a warm shower or through a hot compress or heating pad. Heat works to loosen the muscles and improve stiffness. Both cold and heat should be applied to the area for only about 20-minute intervals.
After you have taken some basic self-care steps, the next step will be to do some therapeutic exercises that work to strengthen the neck, shoulder, and upper back muscles. The physical therapists at ProFysio Physical Therapy can help by prescribing a customized plan that works to address your specific needs. Our goal will be to help you gain strength and flexibility and reduce the chances of developing a neck injury in the future.
The exercises we recommend will depend on your condition, but might include some of the following:
- Shoulder and head rolls - Rolling the neck to the side will stretch the neck muscles that are located in the side. It will stretch the muscles away from the direction you are moving them, which will strengthen the muscles on the other side. Shoulder and head rolls will help prevent and relieve tension headaches. It will also help release tight muscles in the neck, shoulders, and upper back.
- Wall push-ups - To do a wall push-up, stand up while facing the wall and place both hands on the wall more than shoulder width apart. Next, walk your feet away from the wall and keep your body straight while strengthening the core and the buttocks. Wall push-ups can help strengthen the shoulders and support the neck muscles without causing as much stress as regular push-ups.
- Seated neck stretches - To do a seated neck stretch, sit up straight and press firmly in your seat. Press your hands down towards your thighs and tuck your chin into your chest. Apply a gentle pull of the head from the shoulders as you press, hold for 30 seconds, and release. This is a great way to stretch in the levator scapula muscles in the side of the neck, which connect the upper limb to the vertebral column and lie in the posterior triangle of the neck.
To learn more about how to strengthen the neck and shoulder muscles and other exercises for body pain relief, call ProFysio Physical Therapy at (732) 812-5200 or contact us online.