As a kid growing up in an active family in Massachusetts, I got this advice from my mother practically every day. I remember being little and wondering “How can you get a pain in your neck? Is that even possible?” Scraped knees and elbows, bumps and bruises I could understand, but come on now, a pain in the neck?
Years later playing high school football, I came to understand just what that pain felt like. Neck pain was something that I lived with four months of the year for the next eight years. Football stopped, but neck pain continued in some way, shape, or form. To this day, almost 40 years later, the snap, crackle, and pop in my morning isn’t from my rice krispies. Fortunately, I’ve learned ways to control this unhappy remnant of my glory days.
Chances are you can probably relate to the idea of neck and back pain. The facts are that 8 out of 10 people will suffer from chronic neck or back pain at some point in life, and there is a good chance that the other two people lying. Virtually nobody escapes at least one of these two conditions. Contemporary American life and the creature comforts that we enjoy are perfect breeding grounds for back and neck pain. Chronic pain and orthopedic diseases have become to this generation what smoking was for the 1960s and 70s. (See also “Death By Desk” May 15, 2014 from this blog) While we can readily understand the physical problems that this causes for millions, we don’t often consider the impact that spine related problems have on mental health. An international research study conducted among 85,000 participants around the world, in 17 countries, showed that instances of mental health problems were significantly higher in those with spine related issues. 42% of participants with mental health problems reported spine or neck problems during the previous 12 months. While the correlation between this and spinal pain is a little unclear, it’s no stretch to assume that back and neck pain play a role in emotional distress.
Fortunately for those of us that struggle with neck and back pain, the Internet has hundreds of sites with very sound preventative and palliative advice. It’s kind of ironic that the same technological advances that contribute to this problem also could hold the solution. Some of the biggest factors contributing to problems are that modern man has lost his ability to sit, stand, and move appropriately. The Mayfield Clinic for Brain and Spine provides the following how to advice:
Figure 1. The proper way to stand with your head up, shoulders straight, chest forward, hips tucked in, and your weight balanced evenly on both feet.
Avoid standing in the same position for a long time.
If possible, adjust the height of the work table to a comfortable level.
When standing, try to elevate one foot by resting it on a stool or box. After several minutes, switch your foot position.
While working in the kitchen, open the cabinet under the sink and rest one foot on the inside of the cabinet. Change feet every 5 to 15 minutes.
Figure 2. The proper way to sit with your hips and knees at a right angle (use a foot rest or stool if necessary). Your legs should not be crossed and your feet should be flat on the floor.
Sit as little as possible, and only for short periods of time (10 to 15 minutes).
Sit with a back support (such as a rolled-up towel) at the curve of your back. When you are not using a back support or lumbar roll, follow these tips to find a good sitting position:
1. Sit at the end of your chair and slouch completely.
2. Draw yourself up and accentuate the curve of your back as far as possible. Hold for a few seconds.
3. Release the position slightly (about 10 degrees). This is a good sitting posture.
Sit in a high-back, firm chair with arm rests. Sitting in a soft couch or chair will tend to make you round your back and won’t support the curve of your back. At work, adjust your chair height and workstation so you can sit up close to your work and tilt it up at you. Don’t hunch or lean over your work. Rest your elbows and arms on your chair or desk, keeping your shoulders relaxed.
When standing up from the sitting position, move to the front of the seat of your chair. Stand up by straightening your legs. Avoid bending forward at your waist. Immediately stretch your back by doing 10 standing backbends.
The Mayfield Clinic’s website is well worth a look see if you are one of those eight out of 10 with back and neck pain. Don’t ignore their free advice. For more check out their website at: http://www.mayfieldclinic.com/PE-self.htm#.VAggBmOyrm9
The neck and cervical spine also need attention in order to remain pain free. Most of us pay no attention to our neck until we have pain there. We usually do nothing in the way of exercise, ibuprofen the heck out of it, and wait until the pain passes on its own. Neck pain can have several causes, poor posture, muscle imbalances, or old injuries. It’s one of those disturbing parts of the body that can get injured during sleep. You go to bed feeling well, and wake up with what I call a “sleep injury.” These sleep injuries usually occur because we sleep in ways where our bodies are misaligned. The Mayfield Clinic’s website mentioned above has great advice that can prevent sleep injuries.
Even those of us who exercise quite frequently never think to exercise our necks. Neck exercise should increase flexibility and motion in the neck, shoulders, upper back, and cervical spine. The following is an excerpt on neck exercise taken from the University of Utah’s Department of health sciences website:
Before you begin a neck exercise, it’s important to find the proper starting position for your head. This helps prevent exercise-related injuries. Do this by putting your head squarely over your shoulders, then move it straight forward and then back. This back or base position is your starting point. For each of the following exercises, begin with 5 repetitions and build up to 10.
Rotations. Sitting or standing, turn your head slowly to the left and then to the right as far as you can, comfortably. Hold each stretch for 10 seconds to 30 seconds.
Shoulder circles. While standing, raise your shoulders straight up, then move them in a circle around, down and back up again. Circle in both directions.
Side stretches. While standing, stretch your neck slowly to the left trying to touch your ear to your shoulder. Repeat on the right side.
Resistance exercises. Place your right hand against your head above your ear and gently press, resisting the movement with your neck. Do the same with your left hand on the other side.
Head lifts. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Lift and lower your head, keeping your shoulders flat on the floor. Next, lie on 1 side and lift your head toward the ceiling. Repeat this movement on your other side and while lying on your stomach.
Another great resource is provided below. It is a 16 page booklet made available by the North American Spine Society. It is a simple, how to booklet on maintaining cervical spine health.
If you are a regular reader of this blog, you probably do take care of yourself and are aware of the role that mutually exists between your physical and mental health. However, I bet you don’t do much of anything to keep your neck in shape. The exercises provided in the resources above can be added to your day easily, and can be done pretty much anywhere. Give them a try, and don’t worry about developing an NFL neck. My mother was right about virtually everything she ever told me, so “Stop being a pain in the neck!”
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