With so many of us gazing into computers or staring down at our smart phones most of the day, it’s no wonder data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that nearly 20% of us have experienced neck pain within the past three months.
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A stiff neck typically is the result of muscles weakening over time from poor posture or misuse, says chiropractor Andrew Bang, DC.
Looking down at your computer monitor all day can cause the muscles around the neck joints to tire and become overstretched. Driving for long periods of time or looking at your smart phone can have the same effect. If you’re doing this day after day, it can add up and can displace your neck joints.
“When your neck muscles become weak and you try to turn your head, the joint no longer moves smoothly because it’s now out of place,” Dr. Bang says. “Often the joint catches on something, either pulling a muscle or hitting the nerve irregularly, or maybe both.
“Then you’ll have instant pain and your body has a protective spasm. Your body doesn’t want you to get hurt more, so it will clench, causing you to feel like you can’t even move — and leaving you wondering what you did to injure yourself.”
Stretching can keep pain at bay
Putting your monitor at eye level, sitting up straight and avoiding tilting and twisting your head down or to the side while you’re on the computer can help you avoid neck pain. When you’re driving or looking at your smart phone, be sure to take frequent breaks and avoid having your neck bent forward for long periods of time, Dr. Bang says.
The key to relief for a stiff neck is proper stretching and manipulation, Dr. Bang says. Here are some stretches you can try at your desk or in the car that may help you to avoid a stiff neck:
- Roll your shoulders backwards and down 10 times.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades together 10 times.
- Push your head backwards into your car head rest or hands and hold for 30 seconds.
- Bring your ear to your shoulder 10 times on each side.
Take care when you sleep
Dr. Bang says if your neck is bothering you, you also should pay attention to your sleep positions. Sleep only on your side or on your back – never on your stomach, he says.
“When you sleep on your stomach, often you will end up twisting your head one way or the other for hours at a time,” Dr. Bang says. “Sleeping on your stomach also can affect your low back because your belly sinks in to the bed if you don’t have enough support.”
For minor, common causes of neck pain, try these simple remedies:
- Apply heat or ice to the painful area. Use ice for the first 48 to 72 hours, then use heat after that. Heat may be applied with warm showers, hot compresses or a heating pad. Be sure not to fall asleep with a heating pad or ice bag in place to avoid skin injuries.
- Take over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen.
- Keep moving, but avoid jerking or painful activities. This helps calm your symptoms and reduce inflammation.
- Do slow range-of-motion exercises, up and down, side to side, and from ear to ear. This helps to gently stretch the neck muscles.
- Have a partner gently massage the sore or painful areas.
- Try sleeping on a firm mattress without a pillow or with a special neck pillow.
- Ask your health care provider about using a soft neck collar to relieve discomfort. Don’t use the collar for a long time. Doing so can make your neck muscles weaker.
If the pain gets in the way of your daily activities, Dr. Bang says to call your doctor.