The neck is a vulnerable area for experiencing problems partly because it receives many stressful influences from other sources. These influences force the neck to compensate which creates increased muscle activity, joint pressures, and possible nerve compression. The head and neck’s unique position in space, where it exists without surrounding support, also makes it vulnerable to injuries from falls, car accidents, and sports. The whiplash type of injury, as from a motor vehicle accident or a bad fall, is an all too common source of chronic neck pain.
Aside from the accidental sources, the more insidious causes of neck pain have a great deal to do with accumulative strain in and around the neck. The sources for this accumulative strain are many and varied; thus the expertise of a trained physical therapist is a preferred method of treatment. Let’s discuss a few of the sources of neck pain to gain an appreciation of its variety.
1. Breathing Improperly
One might be surprised to hear that breathing improperly (with your upper chest and neck, as opposed to your diaphragm) creates one of the most subtle, yet constant stresses on your neck. It causes increased muscular reactions and a chronic forward pull (poor posture), instigating neck pain. A person could breathe improperly for decades without notable consequence; but once the compensating muscles start to fatigue and get overly short, symptoms start to mount. This results in increased muscle tightness, headaches, joint compression and postural changes. Neck tension from this source would need to be identified, and appropriate treatment strategies utilized to treat the cause of the problem.
2. Your Work Station
Another source of chronic neck tension may arise through the daily use of a computer work station. In this situation strain on the neck can come from many sources. Is the workstation designed to fit the person using it? Does the chair help the person to sit correctly? Is the station designed properly but the person is using it incorrectly (very common)? Does the person understand the importance of postural breaks, correct respiration, eye fatigue, and right lateral trunk bias? All of these can create asymmetrical muscle tension, pain and potential headaches. A physical therapist can help discover if your work station is instigating your neck pain, and find ways to resolve the issue.
3. Shoulder Injury or Surgery
Have you had a shoulder injury or surgery? This can result in weakened shoulder muscles which then force your shoulder blades and neck to compensate. These over-worked muscles become hyperactive and sore. This is a source of ongoing stress to your neck, especially if you work in a physical job.
4. Chronic Back Pain
Do you have a chronic back problem? Imbalance in the trunk and pelvis can also cause muscular reactions all the way up through the shoulder blades and neck. The body naturally does this in an attempt to rebalance the stresses below. In addition, your neck has reflexes incorporated within it to always hold the eyes level. If there are imbalances below the neck that causes the head to tilt, these reflexes activate muscles to correct the tilt and level the eyes. This would create an ongoing source of muscle tension. Surprisingly, eyes have a powerful influence on neck muscle tone; so you should always make sure your glasses fit and function correctly, and that your eyes are working properly.
5. Tight Upper Thoracic Joints and Ribs
Lastly, tight upper thoracic joints and ribs are often found under hyperactive upper back and neck muscles. Also, the tighter the upper thoracic joints the more you overuse your neck to make up the difference for rotation. This strain can create disk and joint degenerative changes over time. Driving and looking back to check for traffic is a common mechanism for straining the neck but there are many examples of this type of stress in our everyday lives.
Vince Hanneken, PT & Owner