Prevent neck and shoulder strain...
Do you walk to work in your sexiest stilettos, a 40-pound Louis Vuitton swinging from one shoulder? Do you spend your day in front of a computer, sending e-mails, chatting online with friends and, occasionally, writing a report or two? If so, you probably also suffer from neck pain.
(What a) pain in the neck! We suspect that all this could have been prevented if this article had been up sooner.
The truth is, our necks don't have much flexibility; keeping yours in an unusual position for too long - jutting forward to peer at a computer screen, for example, or sleeping in an awkward position - could result in unbearable pain.
Think of it this way: essentially, your head is a big weight - up to 30 pounds - on the end of a long, flexible pillar (the cervical spine). Your neck has to be mobile - to allow movement - but strong and stable at the same time, to keep your head secure and your spinal cord stable. When you practice good posture (i.e. everything's lined up correctly), the muscles in your neck don't have to work too hard to hold you upright, and you don't experience pain. "Unfortunately," says Kath MacDonald, a registered physiotherapist with ACTIVE Health Management (www.activehealth.ca) in Toronto, "A lot of what we do today involves sitting with poor posture, which can result in neck pain."
Though both men and women suffer from neck pain, it's particularly prevalent among women tied to desk jobs. MacDonald says, "When you're sitting at a desk, you're often slouched forward. The slouch starts in your low back - the lumbar spine - and goes all the way up into your neck, which 'slouches' by taking on a position where your chin juts out. This causes fatigue in your neck muscles, which are trying to hold your head up. It also causes tightness in the joints at the base of your skull."
Stick Your Neck Out...For Your Neck
Okay, so, for whatever reason, your neck hurts. Relax - you may be able to rid the pain with one or more of these simple home remedies.
Head for the freezer or put the heat on. MacDonald says many people feel better when they apply either ice or heat to a sore neck or shoulder, though heat is often better for stiffness and aching pain because it improves circulation to the surface, decreases stiffness and makes moving more comfortable. Ice, she explains, is usually best if you have an acute injury with swelling, like a sprained ankle.
When applying ice to a sore spot, remember not to put cold plastic directly on your skin. MacDonald suggests wrapping an ice pack in a moist towel and applying it for a maximum of 15 minutes, checking your skin periodically to ensure you're not getting frostbite. If your skin is turning excessively red or white, remove the ice pack immediately.
For heat, MacDonald says a non-electric heating pad works best. As long as it's not too hot to start, you can leave it on as long as it's warm without risking a burn. If you do use an electric pad, make sure you don't fall asleep or leave it on for more than 20 minutes at a time. "Either way," she says, "Check your skin periodically to make sure it's not excessively red or blistering."
Stretch it. "Stretching can help," says MacDonald. "But the best way to learn stretches that are effective for you is to see a registered physiotherapist." In the meantime, here are some basic stretches you can try:
Remember never to do a stretch that cause you more pain, or makes you feel dizzy or ill. If you experience strange or painful symptoms from gentle stretches, consult your doctor.
- From a sitting position, hold on to the seat of your chair with your right hand. Keeping your elbow straight and your hand beside your butt, slowly tilt your head to the left, feeling the stretch in the right side of your neck. Hold for ten seconds. Repeat with the other side.
- Sit up tall, so that there is a small arch in your lower back. With your shoulders back and down and your chin tucked gently in, slowly rotate your head from left to right and repeat.
Save high heels for special occasions. Many experts feel the position of your feet can affect the position of your head, especially if you're doing a lot of standing or walking. MacDonald says the best way to assess whether or not your shoes are causing you problems is to see a physiotherapist, who can do an all-over posture examination and recommend the best footwear for you. In the meantime, try to save high heels for special occasions, and wear low-heeled shoes or flats if you're going to be walking or standing for long periods of time.
Take a load off. We all do it: pack a bunch of things in one bag, sling it over our shoulder and go. "The problem is," says MacDonald, "You create an imbalance where the muscles on one side of your spine are working totally differently than the muscles on the other side. Balance is everything, so switch to two bags (one in either hand - never over both shoulders), a fanny pack or backpack." If your purse is your life, try carrying it across your chest. Load heavier belongings into a suitcase on wheels, as do many flight attendants and travelers. Or buy the wheels and a couple of bungee cords from a discount store and roll your luggage along.
Strike a pose. Jutting your head forward (to look at a computer screen, for example) can cause neck pain. "It's all about making your muscles work as little as possible," says MacDonald, "And letting your joints work in their neutral or middle positions as much as possible." Translation: correct your posture.
To improve your sitting posture, make sure your butt is pushed all the way to the back of your seat. You can use a lumbar support - like a roll, small pillow or rolled-up towel - in the small of your back to keep a bit of a forward curve in your lumbar spine. Keep your shoulders down and back, and your chin slightly tucked in. If you're looking too far up or down at your computer screen, prop it up on a book. Make sure your feet are resting flat on the floor. If they're not, use a small stool or a stack of books to rest them on.
Wear a headset. Like one-sided heavy carrying, cradling a phone receiver between your ear and shoulder creates an imbalance in how the muscles in one side of the neck are working compared to the other. A headset will greatly offset that imbalance.
Pillow talk. "The best kind of pillow is one that gives good support, but also molds to your body," says MacDonald. A moderately stuffed feather pillow, or one with good stuffing and a reservoir of water on the bottom side are often best, since they are compressed under the back or side of your head, but fill in the space of your neck and giving it support when you're lying down.
Bedside manners. When it comes to sleeping positions, MacDonald says when you have a good pillow, lying on your back or either side should be comfortable and relieve pain. Lying on your stomach, however, forces you to twist your neck to one side, and that can aggravate neck pain.
Doctor, doctor! "Though neck pain is very common, and rarely is the result of more serious problems, it's sometimes associated with tumors in the neck and upper chest, nerve pressure or damage and other ailments," says MacDonald. If your pain persists for more than three days, if it worsens significantly, if the pain shoots down one or both arms or up into your head (causing a headache), or if you feel increasingly frequent episodes of pain, you should consult your doctor immediately. ¤ Noa
Kath MacDonald is a registered physiotherapist and Manager of Provider Relations for ACTIVE Health Management, Toronto. To learn more, visit www.activehealth.ca.