From working a sedentary desk job to looking down at your phone all the time to feeling the impact of aging, neck pain is unsurprisingly common. But that doesn’t mean you have to live with it.
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Osteopathic medical specialist Fredrick P. Wilson, DO, talks about how to identify, alleviate and, in some cases, maybe even prevent your pain.
6 common causes of neck pain
Studies show that as much as 86.8% of people experience neck pain at some point in their lives — which means that if you’re feeling sore, you’re certainly not alone. Dr. Wilson breaks down some of the most common causes for this type of pain.
1. Weak upper back muscles
“As we get older, our upper back muscles start to weaken, which can lead to a kind of forward bending,” Dr. Wilson says. “Every time we bend our head forward, we’re taking it out of balance.”
Your head, which weighs about 10lbs. to 12lbs., is typically balanced on top of your spine. But with every few degrees that you lean forward, it’s like your head becomes heavier and heavier, requiring your upper back and neck muscles to do more work than they’re supposed to do.
This can lead to strain, pain and minor imbalances, as well as cause other symptoms, like headaches.
2. Arthritis of the neck
“There are disks between each vertebra in the neck, which act as cushions and take some of the weight off of the joints,” Dr. Wilson explains. “But as we get older, we lose some of the water in the jelly of the disks, which makes the disks smaller.”
Over time, as weight is put on these joints, they react by developing arthritis. “Our neck joints are forced to do more work with more weight than they were when we were younger,” Dr. Wilson says.
And vibration can accelerate arthritis of the neck. If you’re a trucker, a bus driver or have another job where you experience a lot of vibration in your daily work, you’re more likely to develop this kind of pain.
3. Disk issues
The little bones that make up your spine are called the vertebrae. Between them are little cushions called disks. They serve as a buffer between your bones — but they can start degenerating over time. Though it’s a normal part of aging, it can be a painful one.
When one of these disks tears or leaks, it’s called a herniated disk, also known as a slipped, ruptured or bulging disk. “People often start to have discogenic pain and herniated disks after age 40,” Dr. Wilson says, “And after age 55, we start to see people who have cervical spondylosis.” This is a combination of conditions, including joint arthritis, disc degeneration and spinal stenosis, which can also cause pain to radiate down your arms.
4. ‘Tech neck’
If you work on a laptop, you’re primed for some neck issues. “Because these computers are small, people end up leaning forward more to look at their screens,” Dr. Wilson says. “This takes the head out of balance and can lead to neck and upper back strain.”
“Tech neck,” as it’s called, can also come from frequently looking down at your smartphone. That’s because dropping your head forward so often can impact change the curvature of your neck, straining muscles and causing wear and tear.
5. Job-related mechanical pain
The admittedly robotic-sounding term “mechanical pain” refers to any back or neck pain that’s due to a structural imbalance (including bad posture, tech neck and more). “It usually involves a joint that’s not sitting quite right on another one,” Dr. Wilson explains.
If you work in specific job industries, you’re more likely to experience specific kinds of mechanical pain. For example, if you fix telephone wires for a living, you spend much of the day with your head tilted upward and turned back behind you.
“If your head is frequently held in positions that aren’t normal for the body, that puts a lot of strain on your muscles,” Dr. Wilson says.
6. Stress, mental health and chronic conditions
If you’ve ever heard someone say, “I carry all my stress in my shoulders,” there’s some truth to it.
“Patients who have anxiety disorders or obsessive-compulsive disorder tend to hold their shoulders up a lot, which can cause chronic neck pain,” Dr. Wilson says. “The muscles there get really, really tight.” This is especially common in people who already have chronic illnesses like fibromyalgia.
How to alleviate neck pain
Neck pain might be common, but that doesn’t mean you have to resign yourself to it.
“As we get older, we start losing our strength in our thoracic extensors, we tend to start leaning the head forward, which strains the upper back and neck,” Dr. Wilson reiterates. “If you can strengthen those muscles and pull your shoulders back, you’ll have less of a forward drop of the head, which will reduce your pain.”
Three exercises for neck pain relief
These simple but effective moves can strengthen your neck and upper back muscles, allowing them to better support your head and, ultimately, relieve some of your pain.
- Scapular squeezes: Give your upper back muscles a boost by squeezing your shoulder blades together for four counts, then release them for 10 counts. Repeat 10 times.
- Wall pushups: Do these standing push-ups in a corner or through a door frame, moving your shoulders past your hands. They go a long way toward strengthening your upper back muscles and help build overall strength, flexibility and balance.
- Superman stretch: You don’t have to be a superhero to master this move. “This stretch extends that upper back and helps to strengthen it, pulling your shoulders and head back and improving the angle of your head over your spine,” Dr. Wilson explains.
More tips for relieving neck pain
Dr. Wilson walks you through some of the other things you can do to alleviate your current neck and upper back pain — and maybe even prevent it from progressing.
- Work on your posture. In addition to the stretches listed above, do exercises to strengthen your core (your abdomen). Together, they’ll have the combined effect of bettering your posture, which is key to lessening pain.
- Hold your phone up higher. When you need to use your smartphone, hold it in front of your face instead of lowering your head to look at it.
- Reconfigure your desk setup. Position your computer at eye level, and hold your shoulders and arms at a 90-degree angle while you work.
- Find relief with yoga. Some yoga poses can specifically help relieve the pain of a stiff neck and sore upper back caused by sitting all day.
- Try ice/heat. For acute pain, muscle spasms or nerve pain, apply ice every two hours for 20 minutes. Heat (like a hot shower) is better for pain caused by chronic problems like fibromyalgia.
- Consider acupuncture. This age-old treatment can prevent pain signals from reaching your brain. But Dr. Wilson warns, “It may take the pain away, but it won’t take away the cause of the pain. So it’s not that long-lasting — just a week or two.”
When to see a doctor about neck pain
If you experience constant, daily neck pain that you just can’t shake, or if you’re experiencing pain that radiates down your arms or legs, make an appointment to talk to your doctor. They may prescribe physical therapy, medications, osteopathic manipulation or other treatments.
Be prepared to answer your doctor’s questions to help get to the bottom of your problem. They may ask what kind of job you have, how (and how much) you move during a typical day and when your pain started.
“The first thing we try to figure out is what kind of pain you’re in,” Dr. Wilson says. “Once we’ve asked a few questions, I’d estimate that 80% of the time we can tell what the problem is before even touching the patient.”