Whether it’s a sharp twinge after a long day in the office or a dull ache that strikes as soon as you wake up, there’s probably more meaning behind that discomfort.
Neck pain is common, affecting nearly 70 per cent of people at some point, but it’s usually not random, says orthopaedic surgeon Dr Jeremy Smith.
While an accident or degenerative disease (like arthritis) could be to blame, chances are that one or more of your lifestyle habits has become – literally – a pain the neck.
Here are five of the most common.
YOU’RE ALWAYS SLOUCHING
Slumping over a stack of books or leaning forward to use the computer can throw off your alignment and strain your neck and shoulder muscles considerably.
“A neutral alignment is key,” says Smith. This means your head, neck, spinal column and pelvis should be lined up vertically.
Imagine squeezing a pencil between your shoulder blades to get an idea of what proper posture feels like.
YOUR OFFICE IS AN OFFENDER
An estimated 45 percent of working Australians are plagued by chronic neck pain, and your computer is probably one part of the problem.
Too often, Smith finds that office chairs don’t support the natural “S-curve” of the spine.
Thanks to insufficient lumbar support and a lack of arm rests, employees are often forced to slouch and lean over their desks, creating a “C-shaped” spine that puts added pressure on the neck and lumbosacral disks.
Smith advises consulting with your HR department on ways to make your workspace more ergonomic and suggests taking advantage of standing work stations if they’re available (or make your own).
At the very least, set an alarm to remind yourself to get up, stretch and change positions every 30-40 minutes.
This gets blood flowing, improves circulation and gives the spine a chance to “reset,” Smith says.
YOU’RE STILL LIGHTING UP
Everything from lung cancer to diabetes has been linked to smoking cigarettes, and now you can add chronic neck pain to the list.
“Smoking dehydrates the disks in your back and your neck and accelerates the degenerative process,” Smith says.
This can lead to herniated (aka slipped) disks and pressure that can eventually mess with the functioning of your spine.
Smoking also causes blood vessels to harden and constrict, so less oxygen gets to the spine and disks. Don’t delay: start working on a quitting plan today.
YOU’RE OBSESSED WITH YOUR SMARTPHONE
Nonstop texting doesn’t just hurt your thumbs.
Every time you look down at your device – whether you’re messaging a friend, responding to work e-mails or playing Angry Birds – you’re putting a lot of strain on your neck muscles.
Smith tells patients to picture their head and neck as a bowling ball resting on a golf tee. Your head weighs about 5kg, so “it takes a lot of effort to put the bowling ball back on the tee,” Smith explains.
Cutting back on screen time, holding your phone at eye level and stretching periodically are some common-sense but effective solutions.
YOU OVERDO THE ALCOHOL
It’s no surprise that sleeping in an awkward position can leave your neck feeling sore the next day.
While that’s bound to happen from time to time, drinking too much ups the odds greatly.
Here’s why: everyone naturally switches positions several times during the night, but intoxicated people tend to move around less while slumbering.
That means that your body can get stuck in an uncomfortable, neck-straining pose for quite a while, Smith explains.
Other factors that pretty much guarantee an awful night’s rest and morning neck pain include sleeping with too many pillows or pillows that are too soft; both interfere with the alignment of your head and neck.
A mushy mattress can also mess with your sleep position. Smith suggests a firm mattress and ergonomic pillows designed to keep your head directly aligned with your spinal column.