Experts estimate that up to 80 percent of people will experience some form of neck pain in their lifetime, and half of Americans will suffer from it this year alone.
Whether as an isolated episode over a few days or a more chronic complaint, neck pain is “almost guaranteed,” says Dr. Ram Aluri, clinical professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine, who specializes in neck pain. during spine surgery.
While nothing can completely prevent such discomfort, there are things you can do to reduce your chances. It starts with building the muscles in your neck and spine and, not surprisingly, improves your posture.
Neck pain starts from the spine.
While some neck pain is caused by accidents, falls, or other traumatic events, most often it’s caused by everyday movements like sitting on the couch, working at the computer, eating at the dinner table, or driving, says Julia Bizjak, MD, an orthopedic physical therapist. Cleveland Clinic.
When you’re young, hunching over a laptop for eight hours may not have much of an effect, but as you get older, the discs in your spine that act as shock absorbers lose their effectiveness, a condition called degenerative disc disease. Aluri said: The biggest driver of this disease, which is a form of arthritis, is genetics, he said. However, avoiding unhealthy habits such as smoking can help prevent it, as smoking can accelerate disc degeneration.
The best way to prevent neck pain is to strengthen the paraspinal muscles, which run from the base of your skull up the length of your spine and support your back and help maintain your posture, along with your abdominal muscles.
“If those muscles can be kept strong,” says Dr. Alluri, “they can prevent increased motion at the actual disc and joint level, and that can minimize or eliminate neck pain.”
A recent meta-analysis found that strength training, stretching, and walking are likely to reduce the recurrence of neck pain. What’s more, Dr. Bizjak says that building your back, chest, and core muscles helps keep your body in an upright position, which will also help prevent neck pain.
Build the back to protect the neck
Most people lose strength in their upper back, including the paraspinal muscles, as they age, whether they have arthritis or not. This causes the shoulders and head to fall forward. The best way to combat this is to strengthen your back and shoulder muscles, which keep your body straight as opposed to rounded. You can start at home without any weights or equipment with specific neck exercises.
A simple one at home or at work starts with a chair with back support. Place your hand on your forehead and push forward against it as far as you can while holding your head back with your hand. Push for 10 seconds, rest and repeat three times. You can also do this exercise with your hand on the back of your head, pushing your head back.
Another exercise at home that strengthens your core, back, and shoulders is the plank, either in a pushup position or propped up on your elbows.
If you have access to weights, you can work straight dumbbell rows into your upper back. While standing in this exercise, hold a dumbbell in each hand and bend from the waist until your chest is parallel to the floor, knees slightly bent. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and pull the dumbbells back toward your waist. If you have access to a gym, Dr. Bizjak recommends lat pull-downs rather than pull-ups because it’s easier to maintain proper form.
While Dr. Biziak said there aren’t any specific exercises he’d recommend people avoid, he said it’s important to maintain good form during strength training and, as always, stop if anything hurts.
Sit up straight.
While strong paraspinal muscles will help keep your shoulders and neck from collapsing forward, it’s also important to make a conscious effort to overcome poor posture, says Dr. Bizjak. Whether you’re at the computer, driving, or watching TV, make sure your shoulders are up and back, not rounded. Your head should be in line with your back straight, not leaning forward.
Imagine that you are as tall as possible and think about lengthening your spine as if there is a string running from the top of your head to the ceiling. When working at the computer, adjust the height of your desk or monitor so that it is at eye level, which will not allow you to tilt your head forward while working.
Dr. Bizjak recommended getting a sticky note, writing “posture” on it, and putting it on your computer. You can also set regular reminders on your phone or fitness tracker to check your posture, especially if you spend long hours at your desk or in the car.
When driving (or sitting in an office chair), make sure you have proper lumbar support to help you sit up tall. Instead of leaning forward on your handlebars, move your head slightly back toward the headrest in line with your spine.
Finally, watch how you use your phone. Squatting on it for hours will inevitably give you a sore neck.
If you’re going to be reading and scrolling on your phone all night, Dr. Bizjak recommends placing your device on a pillow. Bring your phone close enough so you can keep your head upright instead of leaning forward, and take breaks or change positions, even lying on your back, to relax your neck.
Hilary Achauer is a freelance writer covering health and fitness.
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