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My Desk Job is a Pain in the Neck

By Alan Williams, PT, OTR/L, ATC, CSCS

In 1987, my eldest daughter (a second grader at the time) came home and excitedly told me that they’d gotten to play with a REAL COMPUTER at school that day. They’d each had a turn to guide a computerized cave explorer through a series of obstacles by using the mouse, and the teacher had explained how important it was that they learn this since they’d be the first generation to grow up using computers. And as we all know, she was right. Now computers are an integral part of our everyday lives. For better or worse, we rely on them, though through no fault of their own, computers are giving us neck pain at an alarming rate.

The neck is composed of the top seven vertebrae (called the cervical spine). The vertebrae are cushioned by disks (soft sacks of cartilage) and surrounded by muscles, tendons, and nerves. These systems all work together to support, stabilize, and mobilize the head, which on average weighs 9 lbs in adults. It’s a big, thankless job, and sometimes we put such strain on our necks that they begin to break down.

Neck pain has many different faces. It can be sharp, stabbing, dull, aching, and fuzzy. Your neck can be stiff or tender, and in some cases the pain may radiate down into your shoulders and back. You may feel tingling or numbness, be lightheaded or dizzy, or even have a headache – and any combination of the above. These symptoms are the result of neck injury, which can be in the form of muscular strain, degenerating disks, or weakened joints.

Some types of neck strain are not always preventable (whiplash from an accident, bone spurs, certain degenerative diseases, etc.), but most often we injure our necks through lifestyle choices. Little details such as what position we sleep in, how much time we spend at our desks, and whether or not we wear a seatbelt can make a big difference in how well our necks are able to function. Perhaps more so than other joints, when your neck is injured, your life is severely impacted, and going about your daily tasks becomes a major ordeal. Because of this, it’s worth looking into some steps we can take to protect them.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – adopting proper posture is key to avoiding many commonplace neck and back problems. When your spine is allowed to maintain its natural S-curve shape, it can function with the highest efficiency. Rather than hunching over your computer, sit up straight with your ears, shoulders, and hips aligned. Now raise your monitor so that the middle of the screen is level with your eyes. This is the neck’s favorite position. It takes pressure off the vertebrae and disks, allows the muscles and tendons to relax, and keeps the nerves from being compressed.

If your job requires you to spend a lot of time bent over a desk or workbench, maintaining this posture is not always possible, so be sure to take frequent breaks to gently stretch – raise and lower your shoulders, do slow neck circles, and pull your shoulders back while tilting your head to each side. Your physical therapist can give you more ideas for stretching and strengthening your neck.

On top of posture, you can protect your neck by avoiding sleeping on your stomach (which causes extra strain), wearing a seatbelt (to lessen the impact of any accidents), holding your phone with your hand rather than tucking it between your head and shoulder (which also causes extra strain; bonus hint: a hands-free phone is even better!), and adopting a regular exercise program (to improve circulation and keep muscles, bones, and joints fit).

Your desk job doesn’t have to be a pain in the neck. Watch your posture and avoid additional strain on your neck so that your computer can become more of a friend and less of a foe.

Don’t let neck pain hold you back. Call 463-0022 today for your FREE Neck Pain Assessment!