Many people suffer from chronic neck pain that is preventable. Oftentimes, a few simple stretches and exercises can help to alleviate neck pain, headaches, and arm pain. It has been reported that upwards of 67% of the population have neck pain at some point in their life(1). This number can be expected to increase as the number of sedentary jobs continue to grow. Currently, more than 27% of individuals in the US work in low-activity occupations(2). Often times, these jobs include seated desk work which can wreak havoc on your posture, and become a real pain in the neck.
Poor seated posture can lead to forward rounded shoulders. The muscles in the front of your body become short and tight. On the other side, the muscles on your back body become lengthened and weak. In PT we have coined this condition with a fancy term we refer to as “upper crossed syndrome.”
Over time, these changes in muscle flexiblity will cause increased stress on your neck. Our body is great at compensating. If we are lacking motion from the upper neck and upper back, we compensate by creating TOO MUCH motion throughout the middle cervical spine. Our neck (cervical spine) is made up of seven vertebra (C1-C7). The most comon levels of cerival disc herntaiton occur at levels C4, C5, and C6(3). These levels are subject to excessive motion which will wear down the disc’s due to the motion resictions occuring above and below.
The deep neck flexors are another group of muscles that are important players that provide stabilization and support to the neck. Studies have shown that individuals with chronic neck pain have decreased activation of this muscle group to protect the neck when individuals are asked to perform activities with their arms(4). In individuals without neck pain, the deep neck muscles turn on prior to their arm muscles when performing reaching tasks. This helps to stabilize their cervical spine, in anticipation of movement. In individuals with neck pain, there was a much longer delay in activation of this protective strategy. This finding suggests that retraining of the deep cervical muscles is key in preventing chronic, recurring neck pain.
How to Protect Yourself
Being more aware of your posture is step one in reducing your likelihood of suffering from “upper crossed syndrome.” There are a few quick exercises which can be done throughout the day to improve your flexibility and neck strength.
A combination of exercise and manual therapy interventions has been proven to be most effective in abolishing chronic neck dysfunction(5). Neck pain is not always related to postural dysfunction, but poor posture will eventually lead to neck pain which may limit your function.
1. Brattberg G, Thorslund M, Wikman A. The prevalence of pain in a general population. The results of a postal survey in a county of Sweden. Pain 1989;37:215–22.
2. Carr, L. J., Karvinen, K., Peavler, M., Smith, R., & Cangelosi, K. (2013). Multicomponent intervention to reduce daily sedentary time: a randomised controlled trial. BMJ open, 3(10), e003261.
3. L M Teresi, R B Lufkin, M A Reicher, B J Moffit, F V Vinuela, G M Wilson, J R Bentson, and W N Hanafee (1987). Asymptomatic degenerative disk disease and spondylosis of the cervical spine: MR imaging. Radiology 164:1, 83-88
4. Falla, D., Jull, G., & Hodges, P. W. (2004). Feedforward activity of the cervical flexor muscles during voluntary arm movements is delayed in chronic neck pain. Experimental brain research, 157(1), 43-48.
5. Walker, M. J., Boyles, R. E., Young, B. A., Strunce, J. B., Garber, M. B., Whitman, J. M., … & Wainner, R. S. (2008). The effectiveness of manual physical therapy and exercise for mechanical neck pain: a randomized clinical trial. Spine, 33(22), 2371-2378.