Many of us experience pain or discomfort in our neck and shoulders at some point in our lives. In most cases, it will eventually resolve on its own, but 50-85% of the time it will return within 5 years. To avoid continuing neck or shoulder discomfort, or its return, here are a few modifications that you can make to your external environment, how you interact with your environment, and your internal environment.
You should always seek medical attention if the pain persists > 1 week if it accompanied by fever, a persistent headache, pain/numbness/tingling or weakness in arm, nausea or vomiting, night sweats, or if it occurs after a traumatic injury such as an accident or sports injury.
Your external environment:
- Computer – When doing computer work, the monitor should be positioned so that it is 15-20 degrees below eye level. As a rule of thumb, the top of the monitor should be at, or just below eye level. (These rules change some if you wear bi-focals!) The keyboard should be positioned so that your elbows hang comfortably at your sides and are bent about 90 degrees. Avoid glare on your computer screen and take frequent rests from the computer!
- Cell phone texting – Yes, neck pain from texting has become so common that it has a name – “Text neck.” When you are texting you should use one hand to hold the phone at or near eye height, and the other hand to navigate the screen and text. Also, limit your time texting and take frequent breaks.
- Driving – When you are driving your seat should be adjusted to 100 degrees (Just back slightly from fully erect), your hands should be at 3:00 and 9:00 on the steering wheel and your elbows should rest comfortably on the arm rests, and your head should be supported with the head rest touching the middle part of the back of your head.
- Pillow – Most of us spend at least 6-8 hours in bed every night so your sleeping position and pillow can make a huge difference in how your neck feels. You should sleep on your back or side, and avoid sleeping on your stomach as that position forces you to rotate your neck to one side or the other. If you sleep on your side, the pillow should fill the space between your ear and the mattress without tilting your head. If you sleep on your back, your pillow should keep your head from tilting back or forwards.
Your internal environment:
- Postural awareness – Forward head and slouched shoulders can be major factors in the neck and shoulder tightness and discomfort, but the problem may start further “down the chain.” Check in with your posture frequently beginning at your feet and moving up making sure that your body is well supported and aligned.
- Eyes – Give your eyes a break. When working on the computer, reading, driving – take frequent breaks. Focusing at one distance for extended periods of time can cause eye strain, which can in turn result in neck tightness. Also, keep up with regular eye appointments and keep your vision prescriptions up to date.
- Breathing – Our primary breathing muscle should be our diaphragm located at the base of the rib cage, but overtime we may begin over using our accessory muscles and under using our diaphragm. Many of these accessory muscles are located along the sides of the neck and when overused result in neck tightness. Spend some time every day just breathing and focusing on breathing deeply into the bases of the lungs so that you increase your use of your diaphragm.
- Stress and anxiety – Most of us experience some level of stress every day – it’s just part of life! Everyone responds to stress differently, and many of us carry that stress in our shoulders and neck. Learn to manage your stress at healthy levels and be aware of how your stress may be contributing to your neck discomfort. The good news is that just breathing deeply and slowly can help bring a better balance to your stress levels.
While the neck and shoulder tightness will usually resolve to a tolerable level on its own, ongoing tightness can lead to chronic issues such as arthritis, thoracic outlet syndrome, and rotator cuff issues. Physical Therapy can help you address neck and shoulder discomfort by providing a complete assessment, and then using manual techniques, neuromuscular techniques and exercises, and education to help improve your posture and movement patterns.
If you feel that you would benefit from Physical Therapy for your neck tightness or discomfort, contact Katey to set up an appointment. Other offerings at Posabilities to help address pain and stiffness include yoga therapy, energy and body work, as well as yoga and movement classes, click here for a calendar of all classes.
Katey Hawes, owner and founder of Posabilities, Inc., is a physical therapist, registered yoga teacher, and yoga therapist.