Prevention is better than cure! We know that it can literally be a pain in the neck! So in today’s article, we will give you, 7 ways to prevent neck pain.
Neck pain is the second most common musculoskeletal problem, although it is not as prevalent as lower back pain it still affects two-thirds of people at some point in their lives, according to Vos et al (2007). In our clinics in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, we have loads of patient having Physiotherapy, Sports Massage and Acupuncture to help neck pain but surely it would be better to prevent it from happening in the first place and this article will hopefully help you to minimise this risk with 7 ways to prevent neck pain.
Tip 1 to minimise the chance of getting neck pain:
According to Smedley et al (2003) stress is the biggest risk factor for neck pain, hence why we have started here. Check out this video going into more detail on the effect of stress on neck pain:
So this is easier said than done but if you can work on reducing your stress levels through general exercise, meditation, mindfulness etc. then you may well reduce the likelihood of developing neck pain. Obviously, if you are more of a chronic stress sufferer then it would be advisable to seek more expert help such as stress management counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy and more.
Simple, the human body is designed to move so anything away from this for longer periods is not good for the risk of developing neck pain. Your posture often gets blamed for neck pain but it is not the posture itself, it is more the time spent in any given posture. Even if you spent hours in a supposed great posture then you will still create potential issues, this is called postural strain.
So motion is lotion and your best posture is your next posture are terms often coined rather than there being a bad posture per se, it is more the amount of sustained poor posture or lack of movement and variety of position. If you work in an office then try to be proactive and get up regularly to move, maybe set up an alarm reminder to move every 15-20 minutes. It doesn’t need to be much movement just a few seconds is enough to switch muscle off and on to restore blood flow and change the postural strain.
Another little tip is to not eat lunch at your desk and rather than sitting in a staff room maybe go for a short walk at breaktimes. Your body likes variety so try to break up all that sitting as much as you can.
Strengthen the neck
Surprisingly we think nothing about strengthening all over our bodies to prevent pain and this has been proven to be effective as shown by Lauersen et al (2014) who found that sporting injury risk is lowered by 68% when strength training is done and cumulative injury is reduced by nearly half the risk. But have you ever seen anybody in the gym strengthening their neck specifically? I would guess most people will say no to this, but why? It’s just crazy that people forget the neck but train the entire rest of the body because you certainly can train your neck and it gets done loads in sports such as boxing, formula 1 and rugby to guess what, prevent injury!
Strengthening the neck makes a lot of sense when you consider that there is a strong association with manual handling, trunk flexion or rotation, repetitive movement, working in awkward or static postures & working with the hands above the head (Mayer et al 2012). In the sporting context, it is well known that repetitive sporting activities involving neck and shoulder movement or direct impact are definite risk factors and so strength and resilience development in the neck will be a great way to prevent neck pain
My own experience:
Personally, I have seen this work amazingly for my neck. I had a car accident over a decade ago that made my neck constantly tight, it cracked all the time and would just tweak for innocuous tasks or I could simply just wake up with a bad neck. This was a huge issue for 7 years consistently until I took the inspired decision to strengthen the neck gradually. Within a year my neck strength and injury tolerance were sky high and this translated into a normal neck that wasn’t tight and never (touch wood) goes on me ever!
Now the exercise below is an example of many that you can do but you need to build up slowly with the weight or resistance that you use, so be careful. If you are unsure then you can always book a face to face or online physiotherapy session to assess and guide you on this.
Flexibility of the mid-back (Thoracic spine)
Tip number 4 on our list of 7 ways to prevent neck pain is all about flexibility of the mid back. The body works together as a unit and so when you move your head and neck you get some movement lower down the spine in the Thoracic spine. If this area is stiff, which in today’s modern world it tends to be, then this will place more demand on your neck. This is especially true of Thoracic extension, if you round your mid-back then you will feel some strain in your neck and this is because you have to keep your head up, your neck has to extend close to the end of the range and this will place a cumulative load on the neck joints. Here are some Thoracic spine mobility exercises:
Flexibility of the neck
Joints need movement to stay healthy, the motion and compressive forces create lubrication and nutrition into the articular cartilage of joints. The term wear and tear is incorrect and movement doesn’t wear joints out or cause arthritis. It is, in fact, that the opposite is true, lack of movement in a joint will create a lack of this lubricating effect, effectively accelerating the degeneration of the joints. Movement and loading are good, not bad, as shown below in the knee cap:
So you need to get your neck moving and flexible with regular mobility exercises as this will keep your joints healthy and prevent neck pain from developing.
Strengthen your shoulder blade muscles
The Scapula (shoulder blade) is controlled by various muscles and it is common for some of these to be weak, creating an imbalance. A common cause of neck pain and muscle tension or knots is from weakness in the Lower Trapezius and Serratus Anterior. How this all works is described in much more detail here. When these are weak this causes overcompensation to the Upper trapezius, which goes up past the neck to attach to the base of your skull. Here is a video describing this problem in more detail:
If you strengthen the Serratus Anterior and Lower Trapezius then you will have great scapula control and all the muscles around the shoulder blade will be doing their own share, so the Upper Trapezius doesn’t get overworked, causing neck pain. Johnson et al (1994) agree that the Trapezius is important and when it is working correctly it takes loading away from the spine. Now there are many exercises for these two muscles but something like the Serratus Anterior Downward Dog or Prone Overhead Shoulder Raises are great exercises to try.
The final tip on our list of 7 ways to prevent neck pain is all about sleep. Firstly get good quality sleep and around 8 hours per night because lack of sleep has been shown to increase pain sensitivity and has been proven as a risk factor for pain. Check out this video for more information about how lack of sleep affects pain sensitivity:
People often ask about what pillow or mattress to use as there are so many types on the market with gimmicks galore but what is the real truth on this? Basically, all you need to do is use a low, firm pillow and when you are asleep, make sure your head and neck are in line with your body. This is because too many or too few pillows will create stretch and compression forces on the neck while you are asleep so try to keep in alignment. Generally, 1 pillow tends to be best and whether it is curved or made of memory foam is down to personal preference. The reality is the same for your mattress, generally, the only advice is to choose a moderately firm mattress as supported by both Kovacs et al (2003) and James et al (2015).
So that concludes our list of “7 ways to prevent neck pain”. So try to implement as many of these as you can into your lifestyle and hopefully you will minimise the chances of getting neck pain in the future.
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