My neck is killing me!

 

You’ve been sitting at your desk for hours on end.  You get up and think ‘wow, is my neck sore!’  Wonder why?  Let’s take a look at the more common thing that happens over time from extended sitting.

Initially you may start pretty upright in your chair.  The day is fresh and you are ready to go.  As the day progresses you start to slump a bit. The lower back starts to round, causing your abdominal and chest areas to come forward and shorten.  Naturally your head follows and starts to move forward and closer to the computer screen.  Your eyes need to see what you are reading so you slightly tilt your head up.  All these moves are unconscious yet by the time you get out of your chair your entire body positioning has been compromised.  After months or years of this poor posture, the muscles become adapted to this new position.  head-forward-posture

So what?

To begin, a natural position for the head is to be directly above the shoulder joint.  When it is sitting in this position, it requires the least amount of energy for your head to rest comfortably.  However as that head starts to move forward of that ideal posture, your muscles have to take over in holding the head up against gravity.  It may not sound like a big deal but according to Dr. Renee Calliet for every inch your head is forward of normal alignment it adds 10 pounds of pressure on the neck muscles.  Over time as the head migrates further forward it can result in 30 pounds of additional pressure on the muscles of the neck!  Talk about a heavy load!  Our head already weighs between 10-12 pounds on average and now we are throwing an additional 30 pounds or more onto it!  No light matter.

So who’s doing the work?  It is the neck muscles that run directly down the spine that end up taking the load.  Not only do they have to work hard to hold up that head, they are spending a great deal of unnecessary energy to do so.  That energy results in an output of waste products including lactic acid.  At the same time the muscles are tight from contracting, which results in decrease of blood flow causing those waste products to accumulate and irritate the nerve endings.  Pain!  Over time the spine will start to adapt to the position and finally recruits the body to lay down some extra connective tissue to assist.  Have you seen people with that lump on the back of their neck at about shoulder height?  It is called a dowager’s hump and is primarily a result of this head forward posture.

This is only part of the story.  Remember I mentioned that you tend to tilt your head up to see the screen?  Our body naturally realigns itself to bring the eyes to the horizon by tilting that head slightly up at the base of the scull.  There are muscles there called the suboccipital muscles that hold your head in that position.  When they are shortened for a long period of time they can develop hyperirritable nodules that can actually cause headaches – like a tight band around your head at the eye level.  Ever had one of those headaches?

At the same time there are muscles in the front of the neck that end up short.  One in particular – the sternocleidomastoid (SCM for short) can also cause
temporal headaches and jaw pain.  Another group called the scalene muscles can press on the nerves that innervate the arm, causing numbness and tingling in the arm and/or hand.  It is a bit more complicated than this but you get the picture.

I could go on about the resulting effects of the chest muscles but let’s wait for another time.  For now, we should look at things that you can do to get yourself out of this positioning.  Here are a few tips:

  • Make sure your chair has correct back support. You need to have a slight curve in your low back or you are going to round that low back which will result in rounding your chest, bringing your head forward and starting a barrage of other problems over time.
  • Make sure your keyboard is in a position in front of you where your arms can relax by your sides with the elbows bent to 90 degrees. If your keyboard is too high, you will elevate the shoulders.  If it is too low, you will be more likely to round that upper back, cave in your chest and end up with your head forward.
  • If you work on a laptop, you might want to consider a monitor so you can look directly ahead rather than down onto the laptop screen.
  • Get up and move regularly! The longer we sit, the more our posture starts to get compromised.  Even if it is just a quick walk around your desk, when you sit back down you will hopefully be sitting more erect.
  • Stretch out the neck muscles in the front, sides and back of the neck.
  • Do some door stretches to stretch out the pectoralis muscles.
  • Don’t know the ideal positioning for these stretches? Check out my eBook.  It will give you full details for stretching these muscles and much more.
  • Think of lifting up the top of your head towards the ceiling to elongate the neck and slightly tuck your chin in towards your neck.
  • Set a timer every hour or two to recheck your sitting position and realign yourself accordingly.

If you are not sure if you have your head forward of ideal alignment, ask someone to take a picture of you from the side.  You may be surprised!

As I am sure you know, sitting is only one of the culprits for that head ending up in a forward position.  Many other factors can play a role including imbalanced musculature in the upper body and hips.  If you have chronic neck pain or regular headaches you may want to check with a physical therapist or neuromuscular therapist to assist in assessing your situation.  You may also want to look into forms of exercise that will help you rebalance your body such as yoga, Pilates or Essentrics.  Not only will these help in getting the blood flowing but over time will assist you in getting your body properly aligned.

These are just a few tips to get your started.

I hope you found this helpful!

To your health,

Julie

Stress and the Benefits of Massage

Stress is just part of living.  Some stress is good.  This type of stress is called “eustress” and results in things like motivation, feelings of excitement and improving performance.  The other, more common type of stress  is “distress” which can initially cause the same response but over time plays havoc on our bodies.  (To learn more about this type of stress read, The Effects of Stress.)

In this prolonged situation of distress, we tend to hold our bodies in a tight or contracted state.  Our breath shortens and our muscles start to ‘hold’ onto that tightness.  Often we carry our stress in certain parts of our bodies.  The more common areas are shoulders/neck, low back and the abdominal area. 

At first we don’t really pay much attention to the fact that we are tightening that area.  It is at an unconscious level.  However over time those muscles that are continually contracted start to cause us pain or discomfort.  Hopefully this wakes us up! 

The cycle looks something like this: 

  • We become stressed out about something.
  • We then hold tension unconsciously in certain muscles. 
  • Those muscles are contracting for an extended period of time. 
  • The more they contract, the more waste products they produce. 
  • Meanwhile, when they contract, they limit the amount of blood that flows to them.  This is known as vasoconstriction.
  • Since there is a lack of blood flowing to the muscle, the waste products cannot be flushed out but rather accumulate in the tissues. 
  • This causes an irritation to the nerve endings and the result is PAIN.
  • Along with pain comes more tension.
  • Then the cycle continues to move beyond the original tight muscles into the surrounding muscles.  This is the body’s way of protecting itself.
  • Those muscles start to stay contracted and the pattern starts all over again in those outlying muscles.

As you can see, this cycle can go on and on.  In addition to pain, often we end up with other symptoms like headaches, numbness, fatigue, weakness, stomach aches, or shortness of breath; just to name a few.  Over an even longer period of time, say months or years, we start to develop symptoms that lead us to believe something bigger is wrong with us.  At this point it can be incredibly difficult to reverse this process and yet not impossible by any means.

This is where therapeutic massage comes in. 

Massage that works on a level deep enough to affect the tightness (without going too deep) can be very beneficial.  It assists in bringing fresh blood to the tissues thus allowing the waste products to move out while at the same time bringing nutrients to the muscles to help them heal.  It also works on a neurological level to affect the proprioceptors. 

Proprioceptors are found throughout our entire body.  The ones located in the muscles act as messengers to the brain to tell it to either shut off the contraction or to turn it on; depending on which proprioceptors we are talking about.  Those found in the tendons, near the insertion of the muscle into the bone, are called Golgi Tendon Organs or GTO’s.  Their work is specifically to help the muscles relax by sending messages to the brain to stop the contraction within the muscle.  This is just one simple example in a very complex situation.

In addition to the physical therapeutic benefits of massage there is the emotional.  Often along with stress comes a hurried life with little to no time to stop and take care of ourselves.  The more we push to avoid the situation, the more we create the havoc.  Therefore by allowing oneself time to rest and receive nurturing touch from a professional becomes a necessity rather than a luxury. 

If you have never experienced this type of massage I encourage you to do so.  If you have and yet do not make the time in your hurried life, I also encourage you to do so.  I have been a Certified Massage Therapist for almost 20 years.  To this day I am still amazed at the change is someone’s face, how they carry themselves (shoulders no longer up to their ears, for example), and the type energy they have after receiving a deep tissue massage.  I see them breathe more deeply and take a moment to sit and relax.  Often they seem like an entirely different person than the one that arrived!  Clearly we are not talking about luxury but something very important for our overall health.

I live in Boulder, Colorado where we are fortunate enough to have a great number of skilled professionals.  If you live in an area where your resources are limited, you might consult one of the following associations to find someone in your area.  

This is a gift to give to yourself or to those whom you love!

For more questions, feel free to email me at info@julie-webster.com and I will try to answer your questions.