Neck pain is a common problem, affecting about 15-25% of people ages 21 to 55. Once a person experiences neck pain for any reason, there is a strong likelihood of recurring neck pain, often due to the same cause. In some cases, this pain is so severe as to cause a person to become disabled.
This is partially due to a society in which poor posture seems inevitable and is ubiquitous. With the advent of smartphones and tablets, many of us spend hours with our heads facing down, straining forward to see the screens which make up most of our day. The opposite of this hyperflexion (forward extension) is hyperextension when the delicate vertebrae of the neck are compressed as the head tilts up and back.
We may not be able to change our occupations to prevent neck pain, but there are sitting exercises that you can do to help prevent or treat neck strain and discomfort.
Each of these exercises should be done slowly and mindfully. Repeat them a couple times every hour, with the goal of three in a row every hour.
Cervical neck retraction (chin tuck)
This simple exercise “resets” the vertebrae and is an excellent way to remind you to keep your head directly on top of your neck (instead of pressing forward). Computer users who find themselves pressing their head towards the screen or those with a perpetual downward glance at their smartphones will get the most benefit.
Sit up straight with your eyes and nose level. Pull your chin straight back as you lengthen the back of your head. Think of a string pulling your spine up through the crown of your head as you tuck your chin back.
Don’t look down as you complete this exercise. You are not trying to round your cervical vertebrae. Think instead of lengthening the space between each vertebrae. You will know you are doing this correctly when the movement creates a double chin effect.
Brugger’s relief position
Neck pain can be caused by fatigue in the trapezius muscles that drape in a V over the shoulders and down the back. Hunching over a computer or smartphone all day puts undue stress on these muscles, causing pain in the upper back that radiates up the neck. This simple maneuver re-aligns your arm bones so that they are correctly placed in the shoulder socket.
Sit upright on the edge of a firm chair. Your ankles should be directly under your knees so that your legs form a 90-degree angle. Let your arms dangle by your sides. Inhale deeply, imagining a string pulling you up through the crown of your head. As you exhale, slowly rotate your arms so that your palms are facing forward. Inhale again, and on an exhale, continue rotating your whole arm from the shoulder socket down to your fingertips so that your thumbs are pointing behind you, causing your palms to face out to the side. Hold this position for ten seconds as you breathe.
Try not to arch your back or jut your chest forward as you complete this maneuver. Draw your lower belly in slightly to keep your spine aligned as you breathe. You may feel your shoulder blades coming closer together on your back. This is a positive action and leads us to our next sitting exercise for neck pain.
You wouldn’t think that the shoulder blades or muscles in the back could cause neck pain, but the fact is that much of the weight and pressure of a misaligned head and neck is absorbed by the large muscles of the back and shoulders. For every inch the head sits forward of the cervical spine out of position, an extra eight pounds of pressure is placed on the neck and shoulders. Over time, this can cause serious neck pain.
Scapular retraction helps you to engage the shoulder blades and muscles of the back to help maintain proper alignment.
Sit on a firm chair in the same way you sat for Brugger’s relief position. Inhale your arms up into a “cactus” position, then on an exhale use your back muscles to pull your shoulder blades down and together on the back. You may need to arch your upper back slightly at first to feel what the movement is like, but eventually you want to complete this exercise while sitting straight.
Hold your shoulder blades down and together by keeping your back muscles engaged for ten seconds, then release.
You can also complete this exercise with increased resistance by using a resistance training band tied firmly to a hook above you. Grasp one end in each hand and complete a scapular retraction. You may need to work up to ten seconds, especially if the movement is painful or exceptionally difficult.
The most powerful sitting exercise for neck pain is to put all three of the above actions together at once. Your arms will be in a slightly different position when you combine these actions, but the benefit will be tremendous.
Move to the edge of your chair and inhale deeply as you straighten your spine and release your arms by your side. On an exhale, complete the chin tuck as you rotate your arms from the top of the arm bone all the way to the fingertips, facing your palms forward and then out to the side (thumb pointing back). Hold for ten seconds.
Inhale and raise your arms up in front of you with elbows bent. On an exhale, engage your shoulder muscles to bring your arm bones firmly back into the sockets and the shoulder blades onto the back. Hold for ten seconds (or as long as you can), maintaining the chin tuck, then release on an exhale.
Aim to complete this full exercise at least once every hour of the day that you are seated.
Neck pain that is not addressed can become chronic and much more serious. If you find yourself with soreness or pain at the end of the day, give these exercises a try and let us know what you think!