Neck pain is very common and affects 30-40% of people every year. It most commonly affect people between the ages of 30 and 60 and tends to affect people that have a more sedentary job rather than those that are able to move around more in their jobs.
The location of pain can be quite varied from the centre of the neck to the base of your head, across your shoulder and into your shoulder blades. Neck pain can also give you headaches which tends to be felt behind the eyes and often affects one side of your head more than the other. Pain can also be felt into your arms as far down as your hands. This normally indicates that the nerves in your neck are being trapped.
The neck is made up of 7 bones in your neck called vertebra. In between these vertebra are discs which act as shock absorbers and increase the amount of movement that is available in the neck (see ‘slipped disc’ for more detail). Behind these discs are a pair of nerves, one for your left side and one for your right. These travel down into yours shoulders and arms and each have a different job and can give pain in different places.
A modern problem?
Over the years, we have changed the way that we use our necks significantly. We evolved to use our necks regularly, keep them moving and we would rarely sit for long periods of time. Essentially we were designed to hunt, eat and sleep.
In modern times we spend much more of our time in stationary, often seated positions. For example many of us drive to work, sit at a desk, drive home and then maybe spend time setting in front of the computer, TV or laptop.
The most common position that we sit in is a slumped posture. This is where your bottom slides forwards in the seat curving the bottom of the spine. This slumped position is not only bad for the bottom of your back but often leads to a head forward posture. You can check if your neck posture is in a head forward position by drawing an imaginary line from your earlobe towards the floor. This line should pass through the middle of your shoulder but if it passes in front of the shoulders then you are in a head forwards posture. This position increases the pressure on the discs, joints and muscles, particularly where the bottom of the neck meets the top of our back.
Over time this will lead to pain and stiffness felt in your neck and shoulders. This may be infrequent and mild at first but will commonly become more frequent and intense with time. This can also lead to irritation of the nerves in your neck which will lead to symptoms into your arms. A little irritation of nerves will start of as pain, further irritation will cause altered sensation like P+N or numbness and if the nerve is really trapped and irritated you may even feel weakness in the arm or hand.
The most important advice for any neck pain is to try and keep the neck mobile, try and stay in work if possible and to change positions regularly. Also look carefully at the way that you sit to make sure that the bottom of your back is well supported and that your head is on top of your shoulders rather than in front. Changing and maintaining your posture is not easy and we would recommend some form of system to remind you to move and sit up. A reminder on your computer calendar every 20 -30 mins or post-it notes on your screen are just a couple of ways of doing this.
Heat is an effective way of reducing muscle spasm and tightness around the neck and shoulders. This muscle tightness is often a reaction to pain but in itself produces discomfort. A hot water bottle, wheat bag or heat patches are all good ways of applying heat but make sure that your head is not pushed forward into a bad position of your applying any of these.
So in summary, neck pain is very common. It’s very important to deal with your neck pain as early as possible so as soon as you feel you are getting any symptoms we have described follow the advice above. Try to improve the way you sit and use some way to remind you. Move regularly and if necessary use over the counter pain killers of speak to your GP.If your symptoms do not improve, worsen or you feel weakness in your arms or hands then please seek medical advice.
At the Performance Lab we have expert Physiotherapists who can tell you exactly what is causing your problem and provide effective treatment to help speed up your recovery. Treatment such as manipulation of joints and muscles can improve neck movement, relieve tension in muscles and reduce neck pain.