Got a niggling pain in your neck? Sadly, many others know how you feel.
Neck pain is very common, with 1 in 3 people being affected each year and up to 70% of the population experiencing it at some point in their lives (1, 2).
Most common cases are not serious and pain usually goes away on its own within a few days or weeks. However, 50-85% of people with neck pain do not experience complete recovery (3) and report pain again within 1 to 5 years (4); for 30% of people, their symptoms become chronic (2).
Neck pain is rife amongst office workers and can limit certain activities, making it a risk factor for productivity (5). Like back pain, neck pain is a contributor to considerable individual and societal costs for healthcare, insurance, loss of productivity and sickness absence. It is one of the leading causes of years lived with disability worldwide.
What’s causing my neck pain?
There are several potential causes of neck pain, some of which are very easily solved! Others can be trickier. Here are a few of the most common causes of neck pain:
- Poor posture
21st century lifestyle habits are putting pressure on our posture.
Slouching over your work laptop for prolonged periods, sitting at a desk with your monitor too low or high, craning your neck to check your phone or stretching to reach your keyboard. All these things can all lead to muscle strain in your neck and shoulders, giving rise to your neck pain.
Similarly, if some of your desk items are positioned at an angle to you, you’ll need to turn and get in awkward postures to reach for them multiple times a day. Having multiple monitors set up inappropriately, requiring you to turn your head to one side, can easily cause a buildup of muscle tension in your neck leading to neck pain.
You may also be predisposed to neck pain if you take part in regular sporting activities which involve tilting your head back, such as swimming breaststroke or cycling.
- Insufficient physical activity and weak muscles
If your physical activity levels are insufficient, the muscles in your shoulders and neck may be weaker. This can predispose you to muscle strains when performing unusual or strenuous physical tasks.
Sleeping in awkward positions can also have a negative impact. If you sleep on your front with your neck rotated to one side, you may experience pain resulting from tension in your neck and stiffness in your joints.
- Pinched nerve
A pinched nerve occurs when nearby structures compress a nerve. This can happen for a number of reasons, from slipped discs to narrowed openings in the spine where nerves pass through due to age-related degenerative changes (described later in this post).
Rear-end car collisions and other high-impact accidents often result in injuries such as whiplash. The sudden jerk of your neck forwards and then backwards can damage muscles, ligaments, discs, nerves and in more severe cases even cause bone fractures.
Of course, all accidents vary and the extent of the symptoms is determined by the severity of the whiplash. Pain associated with injury can also have a big psychological impact; the person might experience trauma and anxiety around their health outcomes, which can further intensify the pain.
- Wear and tear
Chronic cases of neck pain are often related to degenerative wear and tear changes in the anatomical structures of your neck. These occur with time and can involve your joints, bones and discs.
Around 10% of adults will have some degeneration in their spine by the time they reach the age of 30 (6). Most people over 50 will have some wear and tear in their spine. As the small joints break down, the friction and abnormal movement in them increase. The discs, the shock-absorbing pads, become flatter and lose their cushioning properties as part of the ageing process. Such changes can lead to neck pain and stiffness.
- Additional factors
There are several additional risk factors which can contribute to an onset of neck pain, including a previous history of neck or back pain, smoking, and a sedentary lifestyle.
Additionally, factors such as high job demands and low social support can also increase your chances of getting neck pain (7).
You can learn more about the connection between mental wellness and physical health in The 5 Stages of Burnout blog post. (Vitrue VIDA assessment helps identify those at risk and gives personalised recommendations on preventing musculoskeletal risks and burnout in employees).
What should I do if I already have neck pain?
- If your pain is new, not getting better over time, persistently coming back or includes any additional symptoms such as pain radiating to your arm – see your gp or physio for an assessment, diagnosis, advice and treatment. You can also check NHS recommendations for more serious additional symptoms.
- If all sinister causes have been ruled out, you can start with some gentle exercises to stretch, improve your mobility and relieve your neck pain. In the meantime, try to avoid strenuous activities such as heavy lifting. As you progress, you can move on to some strengthening exercises for your neck, shoulders and back, to help you maintain the right posture and get the best results.
- For more acute cases, try applying a cold pack to reduce inflammation. For less acute cases, apply a hot pack to relieve muscle tightness. You can also use alternating heat and cold to increase the blood flow to the area and promote repair.
- Avoid looking up or down or to one side for prolonged periods. This is often an issue in work setups, so you’ll need to assess your workstation and ask yourself a few questions: Is your screen at your eye-level? Do you have your external keyboard, mouse, headset, chair and other related items set comfortably so that your shoulders, arms and wrists can stay relaxed while working?
Virtue Vida is an AI-powered desk assessment that will make sure all these big and small factors are in place for you to have your best setup and prevent any neck pain.
- Have you checked your eyesight? Deteriorating eyesight may make you move your head forward to see things better on the screen without you realising it, and can eventually be a cause of your neck pain. If you are already wearing glasses, have you considered the type of lenses you are wearing in relation to your screen height?
How can I avoid neck pain?
Take the following steps to remove the predisposing factors and protect yourself from neck pain:
- Improve your desk setup. You can do all the neck exercises in the world, but spending hours at your desk in a position harmful for your muscles and joints will build up and eventually have consequences.
- Take frequent breaks during the day. Move around and let your muscles and mind reset. Remember your mental and physical wellbeing is closely linked!
- Assess factors outside your work. Are you wearing a heavy bag on one of your shoulders every day? Have you checked your eyesight recently? Is your pillow supporting your neck in a neutral position when you sleep?
- Engage in regular exercise. This will help keep your body in good physical shape. Don’t forget about adjacent regions such as the back and shoulders while exercising; if there is reduced movement in your back, your neck will move more to compensate, predisposing you to neck pain.
If you have any concerns about neck pain, it’s always a good idea to check with a musculoskeletal specialist, even if only as a preventive measure.