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Neck Pain at Work? Try These Easy, Pain-Relieving Tactics

By Brittany Risher | October 25, 2017
Neck Pain at Work? Try These Easy, Pain-Relieving Tactics

Sometimes a day at the office can be a pain in the neck—and we're not talking about dealing with cranky coworkers. Fifteen percent of Americans report experiencing neck pain, and doctors say they're seeing more patients with neck pain in recent years.

“One of the factors that often causes neck pain is significant computer or phone use,” says Saloni Sharma, M.D., a physician at Rothman Institute in Pennsylvania. “But, unless you point it out to them, most people do not consider technology to be a large enough factor to change their behavior. However, it is extremely important that individuals not only recognize this as a potential pain contributor, but also modify their behavior and habits to minimize the negative effects of prolonged technology use with poor ergonomics.”

There’s no need to suffer from neck pain or pay for expensive treatments to fix it. Take a look at the common causes of neck pain and a few inexpensive ways to relieve and prevent it.

What Causes Neck Pain

Usually, it’s a combination of things. But often, it has to do with your posture. Wondering why? According to Kevin Costello, certified professional ergonomist and president of United States Ergonomics, it’s because your head is like a bowling ball on a stick—it weighs about 10–12 pounds, and holding it up takes more effort than you’d think.

“When you bend your neck, the muscles around the neck have to contract to stabilize the load of your head,” Costello explains. “Those muscles are strong, but if you're holding that position for too long, the muscles will eventually start to fatigue, which causes pain and soreness. Over time, if your muscles are in a chronic state of fatigue, the forces will be transferred more to your tendons and ligaments to hold your head in place.” And if you stress your tendons, they can tear or become inflamed, causing additional pain.

You may think you're only slightly tilting your head at times, but in a study published in 2015, researchers discovered that people maintained a head flexion of 33 to 45 degrees when using their cell phones, with the greatest angle happening when they texted. The authors concluded that texting “could be a main contributing factor to the occurrence of neck pain of heavy smartphone users.”

According to a model published in the Surgical Technology International, holding your head at a 30-degree angle puts 40 pounds of pressure on your neck, while a 45-degree angle exerts 49 pounds of pressure. And all that pressure can lead to pain that can trigger tension headaches, migraines and even workplace disability.

Your computer can also cause neck woes. When researchers surveyed 630 office workers, they found a correlation between how long workers sat typing and neck, shoulder and back complaints.

How to Treat Neck Pain

If you are experiencing a sore neck at work, there are a few remedies you can try

Take a break— “Sitting or standing in one place for more than 20 minutes strains the muscles more and puts pressure on your cervical discs,” says Afshin E. Razi M.D., clinical assistant professor at the NYU Hospital for Joint Diseases. He recommends stopping every 15 to 20 minutes to move your neck side to side and up and down, roll your neck and shoulders, stretch your chest and back, and walk a few steps. You don't even need to even leave your office—just a little movement helps. Just be sure to sit back down with good posture.

Try topical analgesics

Topical pain relievers like Biofreeze® Pain Reliever can provide the same cold therapy benefits as ice, but without the inconvenience of an ice bag. In one study, researchers treated 51 adults with neck pain by applying ice and Biofreeze on either side of their necks. The patients preferred Biofreeze eight to one, and 90 percent reported that Biofreeze lasted longer than ice. The menthol in Biofreeze helps relieve pain, is fast acting and isn’t messy. You can apply it, then get back to work (or play) while it relieves your pain.

Use hot or cold packs

Ice and other forms of cold therapy are traditionally used in the first 24 hours after an injury, as it helps reduce inflammation and swelling, Sharma explains. Heat is good after that, as it will open up blood vessels, decrease muscle spasms, and increase range of motion.

The TheraPearl Neck Wrap is a perfect option, because you can freeze it or heat it up. The wrap's shape blankets your neck and shoulders, and the pliable gel pearls easily conform to your body (even when frozen), so you get relief where you need it.

Apply kinesiology tape

This stretchy, cotton fiber tape helps relieve pain and support sore joints and muscles. One great option is TheraBand® Kinesiology Tape™. The XactStretch™ indicators help you apply the tape using the right tension, every time, even as a beginner.
In a 2012 study, people with neck pain either received spinal manipulation therapy or had kinesiology tape applied to their necks. After one week, both groups reported reductions in neck pain intensity and disability—though since there was no placebo group included in the study, they couldn’t rule out the possibility of the placebo effect on the results. Other research has found that people experience neck pain relief within 24 hours of using Kinesiology Tape. Watch the video to learn how to apply kinesiology tape for neck pain.

All of these neck pain relief options are inexpensive, and there's no downside to using them. So give them a try and see what you prefer most.

When Should You Seek Professional Care?

You may be able to treat your neck pain yourself, but if your pain lasts three weeks or longer and doesn't improve or becomes worse, you should seek out a healthcare professional, Razi says. Sharma also advises to watch out for these red flags that indicate you may need professional care:

  • You experience numbness, weakness or tingling in your extremities
  • You have a loss of bowel or bladder control
  • You have night sweats
  • The pain is so severe you cannot sleep at night
  • You lose a significant amount of weight
  • Nothing changes your pain; it remains constant

In any of these situations, you should see your healthcare professional, who may refer you to another type of expert. You can find specialized healthcare professionals in your area using the Professional Finder. Simply select which body part(s) are causing you pain and which types of healthcare professionals you'd like to see, and you'll get a list of providers near your zip code.

How to Prevent Neck Pain

There are a few easy ways you can prevent neck pain at work. Try adjusting these three areas as a start!

Set Up Your Workspace Ergonomically

You spend a large amount of time at your workspace, so it needs to be set up for your individual needs.

Fit your chair to your height

You want to be sure your chair has good back support and armrests. Adjust the height so your hips and knees are at the same level and bent close to 90 degrees, Sharma says. A footstool (or a phone book in a pinch) can help you get close to that angle, too. Then adjust the armrests so your shoulders aren't hunching up (which can lead to shoulder and neck pain); they should be at a height to provide gentle support to your forearms, Costello says.

Adjust your computer or laptop screen

It should be directly in front of you. “If you need to look to the side to see your screen, that's creating a load on your neck,” Costello says. You want to position your computer close enough to you that it makes you sit back in your chair—you shouldn't be leaning forward to view your screen. For most people, this means your computer is about arm's length away.

Whether you sit or stand (or alternate between the two), the top of your screen should be at eye level, Costello says. So if you use a laptop, you may want to purchase a wireless keyboard and mouse so you don't strain your arms to type. You can find laptop stands or use a stack of books or crates too (just be sure it's stable).

Mind the Load

How you carry your laptop can be another source of neck stress and pain. A backpack is best, as it evenly distributes the weight. If you carry a bag over your shoulder, be sure the strap is comfortable, and you alternate shoulders. Whatever bag you use, reduce your load and only carry what you absolutely need, Costello says.

Avoid Poor Texting Posture

Dr. Bart Bishop, DPT, recommends taking more breaks to help prevent or improve text neck. “About every minute or so, just look up. If you just look straight and even up at the ceiling for two seconds, it's going to make a dramatic improvement.” He also recommends putting your phone higher than is natural. “When your phone is higher, you're looking more straight ahead and that is helping to lessen the stress on the muscles and the joints in the neck and in the upper shoulders.”

Remember to Exercise

“Something we see more of is weekend issues,” Razi says. “People aren't working out during the week, then they do too much on the weekends, and then Monday, they have neck or back pain.” Instead of being a weekend warrior, exercise throughout the week. Office workers who worked out more than three times a week were 1.5 times less likely to develop neck pain, in a 2009 study. Core exercises are particularly good to do. “For spine health, you want a strong core, which transfers to good posture and alignment, and a healthy neck,” Sharma says.'

Even if you can't get to the gym, doing a few exercises each day at your desk (during one of your breaks) with TheraBand Resistance Tubing helps too, research shows. It showed that with just two minutes per day of resistance training, there was a significant reduction in neck and shoulder pain. Check out this seven-minute office workout.

The Bottom Line: You Can Live Without Neck Pain

Neck pain is something many of us experience, but it's also easy to manage. By setting up your work space properly, being mindful of your posture while using your phone and taking frequent breaks, you can prevent a lot of pain. And if you do experience discomfort, Biofreeze, hot/cold packs and kinesiology tape are effective ways to manage it. And don't forget to exercise—do core exercises at the gym or try resistance band exercises. Your neck will thank you.

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