Those who do sedentary jobs are facing a new menace along with back pain and that is neck pain. Sitting in front of the computer desk and staring at the screen for hours is taking a serious toll on the neck, which often goes unnoticed till reaching a very poor condition.
Neck pain is one of the commonest conditions affecting people worldwide. It has been estimated that almost two-thirds of the global population experience at least one episode of neck pain in their life. The problem is slightly more common in women than in men, and the middle ages are the most vulnerable time for neck pain. While it usually resolves within a few days, in about 10 per cent cases, it persists. And this is known as chronic neck pain.
We all are very aware of back pain. Although neck pain can cause similar issues like back pain, it is not yet well recognised as a disabling factor. But it is important to know that neck pain is considered to be the fourth leading cause of disability. It can cause disruption in our daily life, reduce productivity, affect livelihood and can signal the presence of more serious underlying diseases.
Why neck pain occurs
Movement of our head needs a coordinated effort of different bones, muscles, ligaments and others associated structures. If the movement is inappropriate, like a sudden jerking motion, which also happens during sports or car accidents, the needed coordination gets upset. With this, if the muscles get too stretched, or the intervertebral disc dislocated, neck pain may happen.
There are some specific situations that can give rise to neck pain. One of the commonest is the straining of the neck muscles due to bad posture. Hunching long hours over the computer or smartphone with minimal head movement, or even reading a book, can cause serious stretching of the neck muscle. This results in neck pain. Also if we sleep in an uncomfortable position, we may wake up with a pain around our neck.
Age is another factor. As we grow older, our bones and joints gradually degenerate. Diseases like osteoarthritis also can wear down joints in the vertebral column of the neck. Such movement of the neck becomes painful since the capacity of the bones and joints to support our head reduces.
Problems with nerves radiating around the neck could also give rise to neck pain. It often occurs when the intervertebral disc is displaced and protrudes from its natural position. The nerves move around the disc, and when it comes out of its place, the disc presses on the neck nerves, causing sometimes intense pain.
Road traffic accidents, where two vehicles collide, often lead to neck injury and pain. Sometimes neck pain is a symptom of underlying diseases. Hypertension could start with the problem of neck pain. Some brain infections and cancer can also have neck pain as one of the symptoms.
How to prevent neck pain
As posture is one of the commonest factors, maintaining a good posture while standing, sitting or sleeping is very important. Our shoulders and hips should be in a straight line with the ears while sitting or standing.
Similarly, the head and neck must be aligned with the entire body when going to sleep. An additional small pillow under the neck always helps. There are specialised neck pillows widely available for that purpose.
If someone is accustomed to sleeping on their back, it is often advised to use a pillow to elevate the thighs. This is supposed to flatten the spinal muscles and allow a relaxed, comfortable position for the neck. Sleeping on the side of the body is also fine as long as the shoulders and hips are aligned with the rest of the body.
Due to the work commitments, it is very common for a lot of us to spend long hours sitting in front of the computer. This can be a cause of both neck and back pain. To mitigate the risk, it's important to take breaks of at least 5-6 minutes every 2 hours or so. During the break, we should move around and stretch our muscles.
Also, while working, the computer screen needs to be placed at the eye level so that we do not have to look up or down to see it. Sitting position should be such that the knees are slightly lower than hips. It is better to use a chair with armrests, where we could place our hands while working.
A lot of us have the habit of tucking our phones in between the shoulder and ears while doing something else. This should be avoided. Carrying heavy bags by strapping them onto the shoulder is another big ‘no’. Heavy weight should be pulled, not carried on the shoulder.
Last but not the least, cessation of smoking may also help to alleviate neck pain. Nevertheless, there is no guarantee that it will not happen if we follow all necessary steps. But the risk will be less and the intensity will be manageable.
There are several conventional remedies we could actually use when neck pain occurs. Pain medications should be the last resort, and even if we use any medication, paracetamol could be preferable. Stronger medicines must not be used without a physician’s recommendations.
Our first management should be applying ice for the first few days. If the pain is still there, we can use a hot compress, or even take hot showers for several days.
Neck pain can be worsened by movements. So, it is better to take a break from sports or any other activities that may involve stretching the neck muscles. As we resume those activities, we must remember to start slowly without putting too much pressure at once.
There is a good exercise that can be followed when we suffer from neck pain: to slowly stretch the head from side to side and up and down. This helps to relieve the strain to some extent. A gentle neck massage is also a good way to reduce the pain.
If the pain remains severe despite using all the home remedies, or seems to be spreading to arms or legs or there are associated features like headache, weakness etc. then it is best to consult a physician.
Imtiaz Ahmed completed MBBS from Dhaka Medical College.
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