A sore neck can dog you in every position — lying down, sitting, standing, or walking — and the discomfort can be debilitating. The pain might come from structural neck problems such as arthritis (worn cartilage at the ends of your neck bones) or degenerated discs (worn cushions between your neck bones).
But often the cause is related to strains in the neck muscles, triggered by something subtle in your daily routine. Here are some surprising culprits behind neck pain and strain, plus quick fixes to feel better.
Binge-watching a TV show
Like to watch back-to-back episodes of your favorite program? You might be holding your neck in an awkward position for hours at a time. "A lot of people lean way back while they watch TV, extending the neck backward. Or they lean to the side, forcing the neck too far sideways. Both positions can strain neck muscles," says David Evangelista, a physical therapist at Harvard-affiliated Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital.
Quick fixes: "Use a horseshoe-shaped travel pillow that goes around your neck when you lean back to watch TV. If you lean to the side, use more pillows to fill the gap between your head and shoulders. And change your position every 15 or 20 minutes to give your neck a break, so it doesn't get stiff," Evangelista says.
You might lean forward throughout the day, whether that's toward a computer monitor that's hard to see or toward another person during a conversation. If you extend your neck each time, that can strain the muscles and cause pain.
Quick fixes: If you're going to lean, keep your back straight and tilt forward at your hips. If you can't see your computer monitor well, pull it closer to you or increase the font size. If you have eyeglasses for reading or distance vision, see if they help. If they don't help enough, you can get glasses just for using a computer. If you don't use eyeglasses, get an eye exam: you may need a pair. Similarly, if you lean forward a lot to hear people in conversation, consider getting a hearing test.
Wearing a flimsy bra
Wearing a bra with little support makes your muscles and ligaments do all the heavy lifting. For someone with heavy breasts, the extra weight can pull the neck forward and stress the neck and shoulder muscles, leading to neck and back pain.
Quick fixes: Get a better bra. Make sure both the underwire and middle section of the bra lie flat against your body, the cups aren't too tight or too loose, and the band is level across your back and doesn't ride up. Or try a sports bra or posture bra that brings the weight of the breasts closer to your ribcage and distributes it across your torso.
Sleeping in risky positions
Sleeping seems harmless, but some sleep positions pose big risks for the neck. When you sleep on your stomach, for example, you rotate your head to the side. Sleeping on your side without the right support pushes your neck toward your shoulder. Staying in these positions for hours can cause neck muscle strain and pain.
Quick fixes. Avoid sleeping on your stomach. And if you're a side sleeper, check the support under your neck. "Lie on your side with your head on your pillow. If you can easily slide your hand in the space between your head and shoulders, you're not getting enough support at night. Get a new pillow to fill the gap. Any material will do," Evangelista says.
For many people, sitting comfortably means slouching, which is bad for your neck and back. "Poor posture puts abnormal strain on the spine, including the neck and the ligaments holding it together, and that can cause pain," Evangelista says.
Quick fixes: Sit up straight: pull your chin back, lower your shoulders, and arch your back. If that's challenging at first, sit on the edge of your chair for a few minutes, which makes sitting up straight a little easier, and then sit farther back on the seat. If your budget allows, get an ergonomic desk chair with low-back support, adjustable height, and a thick seat cushion.
Looking at electronic screens
We all spend a lot of time looking at electronic devices. For example, you might be looking up at a TV mounted on a wall, or down at a smartphone or laptop. The trouble is that your head is heavy; angling it up or down for a long time leads to muscle strain and pain.
Quick fixes: Keep TVs, smartphones, and computer screens at eye level. Consider lowering the height of your TV, elevating your computer screen by putting it on a small stand, or raising your smartphone screen by putting it on a stand or a pillow on your lap. "Wearing a travel pillow around your neck can add neck support," Evangelista says.
Lifting heavy dumbbells
Evangelista says many people lift dumbbells that are too heavy. "That throws off your body mechanics. Your trapezius muscles in the back overcompensate. They're connected to the neck, and the overuse can cause neck pain," he says.
Quick fixes: If you're struggling to lift a dumbbell, use a lighter weight. Make sure you're using proper form; a physical therapist or certified personal trainer can guide you.
"We carry a lot of stress in our necks. We raise our shoulders and tense our muscles,. If you have any underlying neck problems, it irritates them," Evangelista says.
Quick fixes: Practice stress management. Try some deep breathing exercises, go for a quiet walk in nature, or learn how to meditate. "I've seen people whose neck problems go away when they get stress under control," Evangelista says. "It's an important part of any plan to reduce neck pain."
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