Understanding The Neck Aches And Pain That Has Become Part Of Your Life

Our neck is a crucial part of the body that we use constantly without realizing. When you are staring at the screen now, the neck muscles are working very hard to hold your head still. These muscles are small, yet they have to hold up a head that weighs 5.4kg on average.

As we grow up and as the Internet dominates our life, you may find some neck pain gradually sneaking into and becoming part of your life. Sometimes it lasts for a short while, and at times it lasts longer, and affects other structures in the neck as well, leading to more chronic problems requiring medical attention.

The neck is very closely connected to the head, shoulders and arms. Thus, problem in the neck can commonly lead to headache, radiating pain to the shoulder and arms, and numbness and weakness in the arms. On the other hand, if the head, shoulder and arms are not functioning normally, they may affect the neck as well.

Let’s examine several common factors in our modern life that contributes to neck pain.

Is your pillow contributing to your neck pain?

Some people have chosen not to use a pillow when sleeping. It may not be a good practice for the neck. Sleeping face up without a pillow may still feel ok but sleeping sideways without a pillow can be very uncomfortable. Since our shoulders are naturally wider than our head, the neck falls into a tilted position once in side-lying position without a pillow. As a result, one side of the neck will be constantly compressed, and the other side stretched. This will lead to pain and stiffness after prolonged time.

Sleeping face down is not advised as well, with or without pillow. When sleeping face down, the neck is turned to one side for hours, over-stretching one side and compressing the other, like the scenario above.

While using a pillow, the height and texture of the pillow are important for the comfort of the neck. The neck needs to be supported into a neutral position. When lying face up, neutral position means that the face is largely parallel to the bed or the ceiling, not tilted upward or downward too much. When lying on the side, neutral position means that the head is resting in the centre of the two shoulders, not tilted to either one of the shoulders. These are the principles for deciding the height of the pillow.

When it comes to texture, the material needs to be bouncy, so that the pillow moulds around your head and neck to offer adequate support. Some non-bouncy material, such as tea leaves, are sometimes used to fill pillows for various health purposes. They may not offer optimal support. People who already have neck pain should avoid using these pillows.

The bounciness of the material will gradually wear off as time goes by. Different material wears out at different speed. Some loses its support for the neck after one year, some after three years. Thus, it is important to take note of the texture and height of the pillow. Once it feels too low or no longer bouncy, then it is time to change your pillow.

Is your posture contributing to your neck pain?

The forward head posture we commonly see in office workers is now the new “standard” posture that we see in at the workplace. This posture puts a lot of strain on the muscles and ligaments at the neck, shoulder, back as well as the wrists. Imagine our poor muscles have to hold the weight of our head (about 5kg) for 8 hours daily! These postures commonly result in neck and back aches, even numbness and headaches in people.

If your neck and back pain comes on after you turn on your computer, it is an indication that your posture is not great. Having the correct sitting posture will help reduce the stress on your neck and back. Even if you have been slouching your entire life, small adjustments can make a huge difference.

Here are some tips for keeping your neck in good posture when doing computer work:

  1. The top of the screen should be at your eye level – this is to avoid prolonged period of either looking up or looking down. The neck needs to be kept in neutral position where the least effort is needed to maintain the posture
  2. Your earlobes should be sitting on top of your shoulder – this is to avoid a forward head posture which will increase the workload of the neck muscles
  3. your elbows or at least majority of your forearm should be rested on the desk – this is to make sure that the neck muscles no not need to use extra effort to support the weight of your arms

Is stress contributing to your neck pain?

Some may be offended by this suggestion, feeling that it is indicating “the pain is all in your head”. However, there is now mounting research evidence showing that pain related to stress is very real.

Some of us when we are stressed, we tend to round our shoulder and tighten our neck muscles. As these neck muscles respond to stress, they will show increased level of contraction. Although the physical loading may be the same, the muscles are now working extra hard, thus more prone to develop pain.

Stress also reduces our pain threshold. So, a body part which is previously only “somewhat uncomfortable” may now become painful.

Therefore, managing stress is a very important part of pain management as well. This is especially true for chronic pain. Everyone may find their own way of managing stress. It may be doing exercises, talking to friends, listening to music, doing meditation etc. A balanced lifestyle keeps pain at bay.

Do I need medical help for my neck pain?

While some neck pain will simply go away with rest, others may need proper diagnosis and management with the help of medical professionals. If you experience neck pain with the following symptoms, please seek help from a doctor or Singapore physio:

  • Pain radiating below the shoulder
  • Pain that is constant throughout the day
  • Pain that is affecting your sleep at night
  • Numbness and weakness in the arms or legs
  • Problem with bowel and bladder

Working without aches and pain will not only make you a more productive person at work and at the same time allow you to enjoy your sports and family time. Neck pain treatment for that constant neck ache is just a call away. Let BMJ physiotherapy solve that aching neck pain.

Darek Lam

Senior Principal Physiotherapist

Shirley Le, writes in detail and this shows in her meticulous work with her patients. She constantly upgrades her clinical skills to be at the forefront of her physiotherapy practice.

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