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Cause of Neck Pain While Sitting
Prolonged sitting with activities that position the arms forward of the body (like using a computer) have a tendency to collapse the spine forward. This forward collapse is most prevalent by the head.
The vertebrae of the neck (cervical spine) are designed to carry the weight of the skull in a balanced fashion. The musculature of the back of the neck are primarily classified as phasic muscles meaning they are designed to generate voluntary, short-duration contractions. This is the opposite to tonic muscles that are designed for long-duration (and often 'unconscious') postural support.
When we allow the head to float forward off the balancing point the cervical spine, the posterior neck muscles are forced to function with endurance thus requiring them to act like tonic muscles. Since these muscles are not functionally designed to be tonic muscles, they elongate and weaken transmitting a cascade of disfunction throughout the neck and upper back.
This disfunction becomes exacerbated by the development of tight anterior shoulder and chest muscles. With the arms chronically reaching forward, these anterior muscles shorten and tighten, thus deepening the collapsing posture. This chain of weakening and shortening progresses into further neck problems, reduced energy, reduced quality of life, and poor work performance.
How Do We Reduce the Effects of Poor Sitting Posture on the Neck?
1) First eliminate factors that generate poor posture as much as possible:
*Insure that your chair has proper support and height. Your hips should be slightly higher than the level of the knees as this will encourage you sit up into the center of the sitbones.
*Position your keyboard and mouse closer to you and at a level slightly lower than elbow height. With you arms kept closer, the anterior muscles become less dominant and the upper body can remain more extended.
*Position your computer monitor or any other primary work materials directly in front of you. Looking to one side chronically will develop muscular imbalance in the neck and back. Also position monitors at a height and angle that prevent the eyes from dropping. When the eyes move down, the skull drops forward which again shifts the neck muscles into that undesirable tonic state. If you are required to type constantly, learn to type without looking at the keyboard-again, this will help prevent the gaze and head from falling down. There are many free online learn-to-type tools available.
*Stand up and go for brief walks as much as possible. Set a timer to tell you to get off your chair and refreshen up the spine.
Easy Exercises To Restore Neck Health
The main effect of collapsed head and back posture is the loss of the natural curve in the cervical spine. These following exercises will help return body memory to where the upper vertebrae and skull should sit in order to have healthy balance:
*Neck Retractions- neck retractions will help shift the upper neck vertebrae back into place and restore the balance lines of the head over the body. Sitting or standing tall, take a slow deep inhale. As you slowly exhale, feel like you are sliding your head backwards over the neck ending with the chin tucked in. The sliding back motion is not large, but easily felt. The tucking of the chin will create a 'double chin' effect. Inhale to release the head into a neutral line, and again, exhale slowly as you retract and create the double chin. You can do 6-12 of these breath-guided retractions.
*Shoulder Blade Squeeze-because the collapse of the head and spine creates weakness throughout the back, you will benefit from restrengthening key back muscles. Again, sit or stand tall, and slowly breath in. As you breath out, contract the muscles between your shoulder blades (rhomboids) causing the shoulder blades to slide together. Your chest and anterior shoulders will automatically expand and release open. After briefing holding the squeezing motion, inhale to release the contraction and continue to exhale sliding the shoulder blades again together. Again, you can do 6-12 of these exercises with the pace of your breath.
*Mobilizing and Stretching Muscles-after energizing the back body, continue breathing slowly and roll the shoulders up and around in circles moving circulation through the upper back and sides of the neck.
Into gentle stretching, begin with the front portion of the neck. Relax your arms and shoulders as you sit tall. Slowly breath in, and as you exhale, turn your head to the right and look slightly up and over the right shoulder. Relax your jaw and focus on expanding the neck muscles that start at the proximal edge of the collar bone up into the front portion of the neck and base of the jaw (you may need to play around the angle of your skull and gaze). After holding for a few breaths, slowing release and repeat on other side.
Shifting into the sides of the neck, bring your head into neutral position. Breath in slowly, and as you exhale, gently allow the head to float down and over the right shoulder. There is no need to pull or contract muscles. Allow gravity to generate the stretch. After holding for a few breaths, exit by slowing turning the chin down over the chest. Then inhale the head up to neutral, and exhale to send the head to the other side. You will feel the upper trapezius muscles opening with this stretch (across the top of the shoulder line into the sides of the vertebrae).
Another beneficial stretch is opening the chest by standing at a door frame, placing one hand on the frame (slightly lower than shoulder height), and with your elbow slightly bent turn the chest and body away from the hand. This targets the anterior shoulder and chest muscles that become heavily dominant when sitting too long.
There are many more stretches and yoga exercises that can elevate neck discomfort, but these are a few easy and adequate exercises that can be quickly incorporated into your work day. Listen to your posture and the signals that the body is echoing back to you. Recognize the signs of discomfort and low energy. Explore tools to remind you to correct your posture and employ proper biomechanics to facilitate natural neck and spinal balance. Your neck will thank you for it.