The Smart Patient's Guide to
Managing Pain in the Workplace

Best Exercises to Do at Work for Neck Pain

Discomfort in your neck a pain in the neck? Neck pain is often related to poor posture, says Allyson Shrikhande, MD. Try these simple exercises at your desk to alleviate neck pain.

neck pain at workThe National Institutes of Health reports that for 1 in 10 people neck pain becomes chronic. If the discomfort you feel in your neck is, well, a pain in the neck, you’re far from alone. Neck pain is very common, with nearly one in three individuals affected by it once a year, according to the National Institutes of Health. Women are affected more often than men, and while the symptoms tend to go away on their own, they may recur. Unfortunately, in about 1 in 10 people with recurring neck pain, the pain becomes chronic.1

“Neck pain is a common condition that almost 75% of people experience at some point in life,” says Paul Christo, MD, associate professor in the Pain Division at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore and host of the Aches and Gains radio show. “Women, older adults, and those involved in whiplash injuries from car accidents are at increased risk.”

Neck pain is often related to poor posture, says Allyson Shrikhande, MD, physiatrist and pain management specialist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

“When you sit at a computer for eight hours a day, you tend to have poor alignment,” she says. “The poor posture that many people have from sitting like this causes neck pain.”

Besides poor posture, improper positioning of your head while you talk on your phone can cause neck pain. So-called “text neck” is neck pain that results from tilting your head down to look at a smartphone screen, Christo explains.

Stress may also be causing your neck pain, says Shaheda Quraishi, MD, physiatrist at Northwell Health’s Pain Center in Great Neck, New York. “Women especially tend to carry stress in the neck and shoulders,” she explains.

The good news is that exercises (that you can do at your desk!) can alleviate neck pain and stiffness. Before you start the exercises, consider warming your neck muscles by laying a heating pad on your neck for a few minutes. Or, take a warm bath or shower to relax those tense neck muscles, Dr. Christo advises. Here are a few easy exercises to try at the office:

Sit Up Straight
It may seem obvious but maintaining good posture by sitting up straight is an important way to prevent pain. During the day we all tend to slouch so make a point of being mindful about your seated posture. Throughout the day, rotate your shoulders back. Hold for a few seconds, relax and repeat the move 3 or 4 times, recommends Dr. Christo.

Another exercise that feels great and can be done from either a sitting or standing position is to  pull your arms backward and—with fingertips pointing down—rest them on your buttocks. Then try to pinch your shoulder blades together. Hold for a few seconds. Relax and repeat 4 times.

Neck Flex

neck stretchThis exercise can be preformed sitting at your desk or standing. It's important to hold the position for a full 3 seconds.This exercise can be done sitting or standing. Look straight ahead. Now look down at the floor for a few seconds and then up at the ceiling for a few seconds.

Now turn your head very slowly to the right as far as you can. Hold for 3 seconds. Return your head to the center and maintain this position for 3 seconds.

Next, turn your head to the left and hold for 3 seconds. Finally, bring your head back to the center. Repeat 4 times, Dr. Quraishi says.

Sit up straight, facing forward, Dr. Christo explains. Tilt your head to the right and try to touch your right ear to your right shoulder. Hold for a few seconds. Relax and straighten your head. Now tilt your head to the left and try to touch your left ear to your left shoulder. Repeat 3 or 4 times.

Chin  Tuck
Sit up straight in a chair with your shoulders back, says Dr. Shrikhande. Next, pull your chin back toward your neck. “Bring your chin in but not down, and look straight in front of you,” she says. Hold this for 5 seconds. Repeat this 10 times and do this exercise once a day.

Stretch with Chin Raise
Tilt your chin up instead of dropping it down as you turn your head slightly to the right side. Your chin should be lifted. Hold for 20 seconds. Now turn it slowly to the left, bringing your chin up as you look toward the ceiling. Don’t lift your shoulders as you turn. Do this exercise 3 times on each side, recommends Dr. Shrikhande.

Thoracic Spine Stretch

thoracic spine stretchHold this pose for 10 seconds and repeat 5 times for the full benefit of the stretch.

Stand up and lift your elbows out to your sides, Dr. Shrikhande says. Rest your hands on the back of your head. Pull your elbows back slightly while stretching out your spine. Your eyes should be looking ahead. Hold this for 10 seconds. Repeat 5 times.





Other Pain Relievers and Prevention Methods

Besides exercises, here are some other pain relieving remedies to try:

  • Consider tai chi. Studies show that it’s useful for treating musculoskeletal conditions, Dr. Christo says. “The practice encourages motion and graduated improvement in range of motion,” he says. “In the neck, the practice offers low impact motion that can ease pain and improve function.”
  • Be conscious of your posture while seated at your desk. You should be sitting up straight and the keyboard should be placed so that your elbows are flexed at 90 degrees, says Dr. Quraishi. Make sure your shoulders are back, and don’t slouch.
  • Short periods of standing and walking throughout the day are beneficial. Get up from your desk at least once an hour, Dr. Christo says. Walk around your office for 3 minutes.
  • Try acupuncture. The evidence suggests that acupuncture, a traditional Chinese treatment where thin needles are inserted into the skin at specific points on your body  may temporarily relieve neck pain. However, the positive effect is small and temporary, and more research is needed to measure the effect of acupuncture.2  (Dr. Christo says that a number of his patients have benefitted after several sessions of acupuncture.)
  • Be mindful of how you position your head while on your cell phone or at your laptop, Dr. Christo says. You may be bending your head forward and slouching while looking at those screens.
  • Avoid pinning the phone between your shoulder and your ear as you multitask, Dr. Christo says. It’s an instinctive move, but strains the neck muscles. Avoid this position when you’re on your phone, and for any conversation that will last for more than five minutes, try to use a headset or speakerphone.  
  • Consider using a keyboard designed with ergonomic considerations meant to minimize muscle strain. In a “fixed split keyboard,” the keys are separated into two or three groups. This lets the user type at a different angle than a regular straight keyboard. In an “adjustable split keyboard,” the keyboard is split into several independent pieces; the angle can be changed as needed. It’s not for everyone and can take some getting used to. “An ergonomic keyboard can help patients with pinched nerves in their neck radiating down to their hands,” Dr. Quraishi says.
Updated on: 04/29/19
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