Maybe you have a boss, or a brother-in-law, whom you describe as a pain in the neck. But when it comes to neck pain, the blame—as well as the pain—is probably resting on your shoulders.
“It’s keeping your head in an awkward position—that is, pushed forward with your ears in front of your shoulders—for a long time that makes your neck hurt,” says Joanne Griffin, senior physical therapist, and inpatient headache treatment therapist at the New England Center for Headache at Greenwich Hospital in Connecticut. “That’s what many people who have neck problems are doing.”
Naturally, some people—because of their occupations—are more at risk than others. “Beauticians, for example, work in a bent-over position all day long,” says Robert Kunkel, M.D., head of the Section of Headache in the Department of Internal Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.
Regardless of your job or lifestyle, you can rid yourself of blame—and more importantly, pain—by applying a few time-tested methods, replacing bad habits with good ones, and giving your neck regular exercise. So keep your head up and your eyes open. Help is on the way.
Ice down. An ice pack or ice wrapped in a towel is a good choice when stiffness is just settling in, Griffin says. If your neck has been slightly injured, ice can help hold down swelling.
Heat up. After the ice has reduced any inflammation, heat is a wonderful soother—be it from a heating pad or a hot shower.
Use a heat rub. These over-the-counter ointments are soothing but have no real healing effect because they don’t really penetrate the skin’s surface, says Steve Antonopoulos, head athletic trainer for the Denver Broncos football team. Never use them with heating pads, he adds. At best they provide “psychological benefit.”
Take the old standby. Over-the-counter anti-inflammatories such as aspirin or ibuprofen will help reduce pain and inflammation. Take two pills three or four times a day.
Sit in a firm chair. As the song says, the backbone is connected to the neck bone. And if you sit in a chair that doesn’t give you good back support, you increase your chances of worsening existing neck problems and causing new ones, says Mitchell A. Price, D.C., a chiropractor in Temple, Pennsylvania.
Throw in the towel. Actually, roll a towel up and place it against the small of your back when sitting—it will better align your spine and give you additional support, says Griffin.
Take a break. Just as the feet need rest from constant standing, the neck needs rest from constant sitting. Your head weighs approximately 8 pounds, Griffin says, and that’s a lot of weight for the neck to support without much help from the rest of your body. So periodically stand up and walk around.
Keep your chin up. Keep your head level but pull your chin in as if you were making a double chin, says Griffin. Also, avoid having your head lowered all the time when working at a desk or reading, she advises. This will prevent stressing the muscles in the back of the neck.
See eye to screen. If you work with a video display terminal all day, it’s important to have it positioned at eye level. If you force yourself to look up or down hour after hour, you may cause your neck to spasm, says Price.
Reach out. And consider putting down the telephone. If you talk on the phone a lot, especially while trying to write, you’ve got your neck in an awkward position—an invitation to stiffness and pain.
Lift carefully. It’s all too easy to forget there’s a right way and a wrong way to lift heavy objects. The right way, says Price, is to bend your knees and hold your spine erect while positioning the object between your feet, which should be shoulder-width apart. When you lift the object, keep it as close to your body as possible.
Sleep on a firm mattress. A lot of neck problems begin, and worsen, with poor sleeping habits. Having a firm mattress is important, Price says.
Don’t fight with your pillow. Just toss it aside. “A lot of people with neck pain feel better sleeping flat—without a pillow,” Dr. Kunkel says.
Or get a cervical pillow. These pillows, which can be bought for as little as $20 in discount stores, give the neck proper support, Price says.
Don’t sleep on your stomach. This is not only bad for your back, but your neck, too, says Price.
Sleep like a baby. In other words, sleep in the fetal position—on your side with your knees up toward your chest, Price advises.
Wrap up. When it’s cold and damp outside, you probably wear a hat. But you should cover your neck as well. The weather can aggravate neck stiffness and pain, Dr. Kunkel says.
Relax. Just being tense can tighten the muscles in your neck and put you in pain. If you’re under a lot of pressure or feel tense a lot, learning relaxation techniques, such as meditation or progressive relaxation, can help. Also, audiotapes are available to teach you how to relax.
PANEL OF ADVISERS
Steve Antonopoulos is a head athletic trainer for the Denver Broncos football team.
Joanne Griffin is a senior physical therapist and inpatient headache treatment therapist at the New England Center for Headache at Greenwich Hospital in Connecticut.
Robert Kunkel, M.D., is head of the Section of Headache in the Department of Internal Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. He also is vice president of the National Headache Foundation.
Mitchell A. Price, D.C., is a chiropractor in private practice in Temple, Pennsylvania.
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