Why is neck and shoulder pain such a problem?
Hunched, bent at the middle and slightly to one side, does this sound familiar? Far too many of us these days suffer from shoulder and neck pain, so maybe we should have listened to our parents and teachers when they told us to SIT UP STRAIGHT and stop slouching!
We have become a nation of ‘slumpers’, with many of us spending hours hunched in front of computers for work and in our leisure time, bent over our smartphones, as well as slouched on the couch in front of the TV or while driving - so it is no wonder our poor shoulders and necks have started to complain. The combination of this slouchy behaviour with factors such as sleeping awkwardly, muscle strain, stress, age and overexertion puts added pressure on our necks and shoulders.
Gone are the days when we used to walk around with books on our head, but there are some easy ways to sort out our posture, help relieve neck and shoulder pain, speed up recovery time and even stop aches and stiffness reoccurring.
My tips to relieve neck and shoulder pain
1) Sit square at your desk or steering wheel, bottom into the back of the chair (which should be tucked in). Make sure your screen is at eye level and keyboard or steering wheel close. A rolled up towel behind the small of your back can help you to sit more upright.
2) Pillow or pillows? Just one at night. Any more and you end up sleeping with your head at an unnatural angle. Try not to sleep on your front for the same reason.
3) Stretch your neck and shoulders. Tilt your head to one side and at the same time drop the opposite shoulder. Hold it for 30 seconds, not straining to make the stretch hurt but just using the weight of your head. Repeat on the other side. Next, look squarely over one shoulder then the other, 30 seconds on each side again.
4) Strengthen your neck. While lying on your back, put your tongue to the roof of your mouth and move your chin towards your chest while keeping the back of your head on the floor. Hold for 5 and then lift your head up and forwards and hold for 5. Imagine you’re doing this bit while bending from the part of the spine behind the ears.
These exercises counter the effects of a body slumped forward, head craned up to the screen.
5) A lot of neck pain is caused by deconditioned muscles between the shoulder blades. Strengthen them by squeezing your shoulder blades together whilst standing, so your shoulders are pulled backwards. Hold for a count of 5 each time and repeat for one minute initially.
6) See a cranial osteopath if you’re over 40. You’ll need to be sure that your neck pain isn’t caused by a slight curvature of the spine (called scoliosis) which nearly everyone develops in time. Older adults should also see a specialist before trying any exercises as something called cervical stenosis can often develop (the same as the lumbar stenosis that causes older adults to bend forward for relief from the pain, but in a more vulnerable area).
7) Change your diet. Plant foods are full of magnesium that helps relax tense muscles. Tea by the gallon stops it’s absorption. Chinese meals commonly contain MSG, a known excitotoxin to the nervous system. Excitotoxins, which include the sweetener aspartame, are also known to increase pain perception.
There are many foods which can help relieve pain, as well as increase it, so knowing which foods to eat fewer of and which foods to choose instead can really help towards managing your pain.
8) Address the stress. Stress creates a situation called ‘tetany’. Tetany means tight muscles and the neck and shoulders are very commonly affected. Try a stress-easing remedy, perhaps one containing valerian to help both the stress and the tension. Remedies containing valerian are also very helpful if the pain affects your sleep.
9) Keep your neck warm. Wear a scarf, have warm showers, use heat pads and hot water bottles regularly, as this encourages the muscles to relax and pain to lessen.
10) Apply some arnica gel for quick, localised pain relief. If you’re already taking any pain medicines, it won’t clash with them but could mean you don’t have to step up to stronger ones with all their side effects. A great quick fix while you’re following all the other tips!
Neck pain does generally worsen if you leave it, so start implementing some changes this week. A minute in bed before sleep for tip 4. Two minutes in the shower for tip 3. Including some different foods to achieve tip 7 takes no extra time at all. But it is time to ease your pain.
Originally written on 11/03/2015, updated on 17/09/2018