What a Pain in the Neck!
Originally published in the "Hamilton Wenham Chronicle," September 21, 2006
By Peter Harmeling
Imagine a heavy bowling ball balanced on top of seven little building blocks which form a column under the ball. The building blocks are your neck vertebrae, and the heavy bowling ball is your head. Now tilt the column forward to read a book or backward to look up at the sky. Or turn it to the side to back your car out of the driveway. That ball gets heavy after awhile.
In between the seven vertebrae in your neck are spacers, or discs, which separate these bones. More importantly, there are holes on each side of the vertebrae through which nerves pass. These nerves tell your spinal cord about pressure, cold/heat, texture, etc., and they also relay commands to move your arm muscles.
There are a bunch of muscles, tendons and ligaments that hold the vertebrae and head onto the body and that also create and allow movement of the head and neck. Many of these muscles that work the neck and head attach to the shoulder blade. Also attached to the shoulder blade is the arm. Therefore, when you use your arm you necessarily use your neck muscles.
There are several things that can go wrong with these building blocks which support the very heavy bowling ball.
The muscles of the neck can and do get overworked. For example, when you are working at your desk for long periods, leaning forward in your chair and jutting your head out toward your computer, eventually your neck muscles will get very angry and go on strike. That is, they will go into spasm and start to hurt. These muscles don't know any better; they are just trying to protect themselves from lasting damage.
If you have rounded shoulders, this places the neck and shoulder blade muscles at an even greater disadvantage and makes them even more prone to overwork. If you type at a keyboard all day, especially if you are reaching out and upward for the keyboard or the mouse, the neck and shoulder blade muscles work harder.
Sometimes as you age the discs lose their plumpness and the vertebrae move closer together. Or the discs can protrude out from their normal position. Both of these conditions cause the holes on the side of the vertebrae through which the nerves pass to have a smaller diameter. This increases the likelihood of getting a pinched nerve. If you have burning, numbness, or "pins and needles" extending down your arm, then you probably have something putting pressure on one of these nerves. This causes excruciating pain.
Here are some steps you can take to relieve your neck pain:
Refrain from hard physical work, excess driving and strenuous housework like vacuuming or lifting children.
While sitting, use the back of the chair and do not look up or down but straight ahead.
At a keyboard, move your chair close in, lean back as opposed to sitting forward on the chair, rest your arms on the arm rests and put your monitor at eye level straight ahead.
Do not hold a phone on your shoulder with just your head and neck. If you are on the phone for long periods, use a headset.
If your neck is sore do not move your arms any more than necessary. The more you use your arms the more your neck muscles have to work. In particular, you should avoid lifting your arms above your head, as this will definitely exacerbate your symptoms. Also avoid looking upward, as this closes the holes on the side of your vertebrae and puts extra strain on the neck.
For quick relief use moist heat and have a family member apply hand lotion and gently massage the area for a few minutes. This is very soothing and helpful, especially if done regularly.
See a physical therapist for some tips on your posture and also some good neck exercises to strengthen and stretch your neck muscles.
If you have pain all the way down your arm(s), definitely see your doctor because this could indicate serious problems.
Remember, that bowling ball is heavy and those building blocks and muscles are doing the best they can. Do them a favor and take some of these easy steps to alleviate that pain in your neck.