Ever had a sore neck? That nagging ache that runs from your neck down to the top of your shoulders. If you spend much time at a desk or driving, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Research suggests that one in five people suffer neck pain each year, with the incidence highest among office workers. Why is that? And what can we do about it? Your head weighs around 10lbs and, when everything is correctly aligned, sits balanced on top of the spine with the weight right above the ankles. When you stand tall, the relative weight of the head remains at 10lbs. When the head moves forward, the relative weight goes up and the amount of effort required to hold it up increases. It is estimated that for every inch your head moves forward, the relative weight increases by a further 10lbs. So, if you slouch, with your head poked 2 inches forward, the weight of your head is now 30lbs! Imagine the effect that extra weight has on your muscles. Feel the muscles that run down the side of your neck and across the top of your shoulders. I bet there are some knotty lumps in there. That muscle is called the trapezius. The trapezius forms a diamond shape across your back, coming off the base of your head and spine, extending as low as bra-strap level, the fibres then converge at the outer edge of your shoulder blades. The job of the trapezius is to move and stabilise your shoulder blades, providing a solid foundation for your arms to work from. If you slouch and poke your head forward, more effort is needed to stop it from toppling off, so the upper part of the trapezius has to help hold your head up. This part of the muscle gets so overworked that it can’t relax – imagine trying to hold 30lbs up for 8 hours a day – hence the knots in the shoulders. Gradually, all of the power available to the muscle starts to concentrate here and the lower fibres of the muscle switch off. The lower half of your trapezius muscle is the part that pulls your shoulders back, so if that isn’t working properly, you slouch even further and that 30lbs creeps up towards 40! What can you do? Simple – move! Humans evolved as hunter-gatherers, not sitters. In fact, the reason we have muscles in our backside is to help us walk and run, not to use as a cushion. For every hour that you spend at a computer, move for a couple of minutes, just go get a glass of water. It is also important to practise good posture. I say practise, because good posture isn’t as simple as just pulling your shoulders back. Stand in front of a mirror, pull your shoulders back and watch what happens. Most likely your shoulders go up, not back. That’s because the upper fibres of trapezius are overactive and taking over the movement. Now, hold your hands together and try again. You’ll notice the shoulders don’t go up as much. Do the same movement with half as much effort and your shoulders will go back, but only slightly. If it feels like it’s too gentle to be achieving anything, perfect! That’s because good posture is effortless. Next time you see Kate Middleton on the TV, have a look at how she is standing – hands together and shoulders back slightly – there’s no coincidence there. If your pain isn’t relieved by these exercises, or you have referred pain or headaches, then you need to see a chartered physiotherapist or your doctor for advice and treatment. Depending on how long you have had problems, you might need a short course of treatment, or a longer term ‘maintenance’ style treatment plain. In most cases, a combination of a few weeks of treatment, and regular exercise will make a big difference. If you don’t see improvement within four to six sessions, or if you have neurological signs, then further investigation such as x-ray or MRI might be necessary, but this is rarely needed in the first instance. Remember, good posture and regular movement are good for you. And prevention is the best cure.
Andrew O’Brien is a chartered physiotherapist and the owner of Wannarun Physiotherapy and Running Clinic at Westport Leisure Park. He can be contacted on 083 1593200 or at www.wannarun.ie
This article first appeared in The Mayo News ( http://www.mayonews.ie/living/nurturing/21687-health-neck-pain-try-being-more-like-kate )