Pain in the neck? It’s more than just a (very accurate) turn of phrase. “The human head in an upright position weighs ten to twelve pounds, but when bent down at a 45-degree angle (the position commonly used for staring into a smartphone screen), the weight and pressure increase to almost 50 pounds on the cervical spine,” says Neel Anand, MD, MCh Orth, professor of orthopedic surgery and director of spine trauma at Cedars-Sinai Spine Center in Los Angeles. “That is a much more massive load than it is designed to carry. Bending the head at this angle repeatedly over time can lead to muscular strain, disc injury, and even arthritic changes to the neck- not to mention consistent neck pain.”
Knowing this, it’s no surprise that about half of us experience neck pain at any given point each year!
The Two Biggest Causes of Neck Pain
Speaking to spinal experts, two of the most common culprits behind a pained cervical spine have been identified: tech neck and injury.
“Smartphones and tablets have reinvented the world as we know it,” says Dr. Anand. Whether you’re constantly on emails for work, scheduling things for your kids, playing video games, or stuck in a social media rabbit hole, all these groups (which, to be honest, is most of us!) are “at risk for something that has been popularly termed as tech neck,” he says.
“Eye strain and carpal tunnel aren’t the only health risks to being online anymore,” he adds. “Though it isn’t necessarily a medical term, tech neck is a condition caused by craning one’s neck while staring down into a smartphone, tablet, or other handheld device. Doing this at length encourages an unnatural head position, which places increased stress on the neck, upper back, and arms. The simple movement of looking down to do something on your phone doesn’t require much exertion, so it may not seem harmful, but it’s the duration and repetition of working against the body mechanics that set us up for pain and potential injury.”
Speaking of potential injury, “Neck cricks, strains, and sprains account for 85% of neck pain,” says Mona Zall, DO, a physical medicine and rehabilitation physician with a specialization in interventional spine at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles. “These usually result from acute, repetitive or chronic injuries.” This can be determined by a healthcare professional, she says. “A history and physical exam by a physician is required to provide an accurate diagnosis.”
Your pain might include stiffness, fatigue, and headaches, says Dr. Zall. And if it’s been ruled out (by a doctor!) that you don’t have a deeper neurological issue, there are several treatments that can help, she says, including “medications, modalities, and therapy.” (We’ll get to those!)
We’ll get into a two-pronged approach to neck pain, with advice from the medical experts: preventative (how to stop it before it happens) and remedial (how to fix it once it’s there).
How to Prevent Pain From Happening
“What can be done to mediate this global problem of neck pain?” asks Dr. Anand. “Unless you’re willing to give up your cell phone or tablet, which is seemingly impossible in this day in age, there are body mechanic strategies you can practice to be mindful of your neck and back.”
Postural Awareness & Ergonomics
The good news? You’re already working on this one. “The first and foremost strategy is merely being aware of the impact that poor posture has on your cervical spine, and if you are reading this, you are already on your way,” says Dr. Anand.
Posture: “Continually practice good posture,” advises Dr. Anand. “Posture is one of those things that improves the more you practice it. It may feel uncomfortable at first, but as we continue to align our bodies with a healthy posture, we are working the right muscles. They, in turn, become stronger and develop muscle memory to maintain our bodies in their proper positions.”
Think of it like a workout! The more you do it, the better you become. “Eventually, poor posture will start to feel uncomfortable!” says Dr. Anand. “Keep your head up, shoulders back, and chin tucked in just a bit. Whenever you feel yourself straying, pull your body back to this position throughout the day.”
Ergonomics: Next, practice good ergonomics. This comes down to seated and working posture, particularly when you’re on a computer and/or at a desk. “Preventing neck pain and maintaining wellness starts with good ergonomics,” says Sridhar Yalamanchili, PT, MSPT, at Atlantic Spine Center in New Jersey. “When you’re seated in a chair, the chair height should allow a 90-degree hip/knee bend to be able to plant the feet flat on the floor. Ergonomic step stools can be used for people of shorter stature.”
If you’re working on a computer, make sure the monitor is “placed directly in front of you, allowing for a viewing distance of your arm’s length,” he says. “You should be able to align your eyes on a two to three inch area below the top monitor panel.” As for laptops, Yalamanchili recommends getting yourself a docking station or a full-sized keyboard — this “will help reduce stress on the postural muscles of the neck.”
Tech Breaks & Sitting Breaks
You probably hear this a lot, but it’s super important. Take. More. Breaks! “A break from sitting every hour will help you refocus and give your neck and back muscles a break,” says Yalamanchili.
Dr. Anand agrees. “If you can’t seem to limit the amount of time and frequency that you use your phone, make sure to take breaks in between to change position and readjust your posture. A three-minute break every 15 to 20 minutes can help to realign your spine and give those neck and upper back muscles a chance to rest.”
How can you make sure this happens? “Use the alarm on your device to remind you when to take a break from looking down at your phone. Added bonus: doing this will also help your eyes too.”
Change Positions Frequently
Similarly, changing positions can help give your neck a break. “Holding your smartphone up to eye level may not make you look as cool, but it will definitely relieve the strain from your neck,” says Dr. Anand. “But don’t neglect your arms while doing this! Support your arms and elbows by propping them on a table or armrest while sitting or when standing, try not to raise them more than countertop level. Being mindful of the placement of your arms can dramatically reduce the strain on the shoulders.”
“Also, if you are in a comfortable location (like your house), laying on your back while working on a device is a great way to relieve pressure on the neck. Get comfortable on the couch or your bed with some pillows and work away.”
How to Remedy Neck Pain After It’s Begun
Top tips from the experts: stretching, heat, and massage therapy.
“Stretch it out,” says Dr. Anand. “Keeping the neck and upper back muscles warm and flexible will reduce your risk for pain and injury, and you can do them virtually anywhere.”
Five Stretches For Neck Pain
Chin tuck: “Move your chin down towards your chest, hold for five seconds, and repeat as many times as you like to feel a gentle pull from your neck to the base of your skull,” says Dr. Anand. This is also called ‘neck retraction,’ says Yalamanchili, and “can be performed in a seated or standing position.” His tip: “Start by looking straight ahead with an upright lower back position. While maintaining this posture, draw your head slowly backward until you cannot go back any further (Like you are making a double chin). Repeat this 10-15 times, two to three times a day. This should be pain-free!”
Side bending: “Tilt your head down and to the right and then repeat on the left, alternating sides, bringing your ear as close to the shoulder as possible and hold for about 20 seconds,” says Dr. Anand.
Side rotation: “Instead of bending, rotate your chin to the right and the left sides, again holding for 20 seconds. For an extra deep stretch, you can even use your hand to push your head a little bit farther,” says Dr. Anand.
Neck extension: “Begin by sitting in an upright position,” says Yalamanchili. “Slowly tilt your head backward toward the ceiling to your comfortable limit. Return to your starting position. Repeat this exercise 10 times.”
Shoulder blade mobility exercise: “Lay face down on the bed or floor using a rolled hand towel under the forehead for support,” says Yalamanchili. “Now raise both arms to bring them to ‘Y’ next to your head. Slowly raise both the arms up toward the ceiling, engaging the shoulder blade muscles. Return to the starting position with control Avoid tensing the neck muscles and repeat this two times per rep, and complete 10 reps.”
Looking for some guided stretches to help relieve tension? Browse the stretch category in the FitOn app for tons of options you can do at home, including this Quick Neck Stretch with Kenta or this Neck & Trap Mobility with Kelly Starrett From The Ready State.
Get a massage or use a heating pad (or both!). “Natural remedies such as a gentle massage and heat can be used to alleviate the pain,” says Dr. Zall. Ready to book a spa session? “Massage can reduce adhesions, cause muscle relaxation and cause vascular changes,” she says. “Heat can provide analgesia [pain relief], relax the muscles and increase connective tissue elasticity.”
After that point, she says, once the pain has improved, you’ll want to get into a PT. “Therapy should begin,” she says. “Areas to focus on include posture, proper spinal biomechanics, strengthening of the muscles in the neck and upper back, flexibility, and range of motion.” This will ensure good spine health, better posture, and pain prevention going forward.
Listen to Your Body: “Let Pain Be a Warning”
“Most importantly, let pain be a warning!” says Dr. Anand. “If you start to experience neck aches or pain, listen to what your body is telling you — and take the precautions necessary to protect it in this busy, connected world.”