Few years ago I was working at this office doing a lot of research and time in front of a computer.
Long (and boring) story short: I started getting unbelievable neck & shoulder pain. And I gained some weight, but more on that another time.
Went to the doctor. He told me nothing’s wrong with me, I needed to exercise and strengthen the neck and shoulder muscles.
Then he gave me some stupid sheet with exercises to do at my desk.
I thought: “What is he thinking to tell me I need exercise? I exercise. Don’t have muscles in my neck. He doesn’t have muscles in his neck. I know some people who don’t lift a pencil and are fine. I work out almost every day.”
You need to understand: I was in superpain then. The kind of pain that puts tears in your eyes when you turn your head to the side.
After this mini drama I started doing the exercises in the “brochure” even though I thought that doctor was a douche.
Well they didn’t help. In fact sometimes the pain would get worse after I did those exercises.
The good news is that since then I actually researched on my own and found out what helps prevent and even relieve neck and shoulder pain. Even though I still have it sometimes, it’s less often and almost never that bad. Plus now I know how I can make it better.
A few reasons for neck and shoulder pain
sitting in front of the computer for long time
being on your phone all the time
doing a job that requires you to look down or to come forward (massage therapist, pharmacist, tailor, lab technician…basically almost anything if you’re not a professional athlete, dancer or singer)
being in a seated position for too long (for example when driving)
I can say that the first 2 points are responsible for my neck and shoulder pain.
A massage therapist once explained to me that when you bring your head forward (like when you’re on the computer or scrolling on your phone) you put all of the head weight (which is around 5kg/ or 11 pounds!) mainly on the neck muscles and spine. And that’s a lot for those small muscles. The weight of the head is then just not distributed right…And that’s why you get neck pain.
Below are the strategies that help me reduce neck, shoulder and back pain to feel like a normal human again. Some of these tips, but not all, are also supported by studies. Still, since neck and shoulder pain are tricky and we’re all different, please consult your doctor before starting with any of these tips, especially the exercises.
1. Take Strategic Breaks Every 30 min to Stand Up and Walk
Doing this brings more benefits than just preventing neck pain.
One study showed that people who took 2-minute breaks every 30min from sitting to walk and move a little improved their cholesterol, blood glucose and triglyceride levels compared to people who took just two 15-minute breaks in eight hours. (1)
I find the best way to do this is to set an alarm for every 30 min and just stand up and walk a little. And it actually keeps me focused as it gives me a deadline of 30min to finish whatever I am doing.
2. Sit Up Straight
Not only does it look better than hunching forward, but when you sit up straight – with feet firmly on the ground, back to the chair, looking straight – you actually experience less pain in the neck.
Because your head is straight up, there’s no (unnatural) tension on the neck muscles or the spine.
This means: when you sit up straight, as intended for us humans, the muscles and the spine are not overloaded and you don’t get a stiff neck afterwards.
Sitting up straight personally also helps me be more awake, focused and somehow helps me work faster.
3. Do Cardio Like Jumping Jacks or Swimming
The exercise that helps me the most with neck and shoulder pain is doing cardio. Who knew?
I always thought I needed to do stretches and to strengthen the muscles of my neck. Don’t get me wrong – you need to do that.
But for neck pain, the one thing that makes the most difference for me is doing cardio more often. I had no idea why this works.
I thought that somehow my body gets warmer from the inside and this releases the tension. At least it felt like it.
Then I found out that while this might not be untrue, the likely reason for my pain relief is probably different.
First of all cardio improves circulation. This means also the circulation to the neck and shoulder tissues, bringing more fresh nutrients there.
Second: the body releases endorphins, when you do cardio. These neuropeptides are known to improve your mood, but they’re in fact pain killers. (2, 3) Which means they kill pain. And yes, even in the neck.
The move that seems to help me the most is jumping jacks, because you improve circulation in that specific area, while also strengthening the neck and shoulder muscles and relieving pain. BINGO. Swimming is another great example that does all that.
If you don’t know how to do jumping jacks, here’s a demonstration by howcast.com. The trainer demonstrates also the low-intensity modified version, if that works better for you.
4. Move at Your Desk Regularly
When you do something way too long, your body (and actually your mind) gets very stiff. Like you’re one of the characters in Frozen after Elsa had a bad day.
It’s important to change that frozen position (and no this will not harm your focus, so don’t worry about it).
Whether you do some twists in your chair (as demonstrated here), some shoulder rolls, neck rolls (very slow!), move your chin up and down or just stretch your arms to the ceiling, to the side or to the back wall – move in any way that is different than what you’re doing now (being frozen with a hunchback). Do these exercises (mindfully and slowly) every hour or so to relieve the muscles on the neck and back.
5. Put Your Hands Up
Because a lot of the neck and shoulder pain comes from coming forward and keeping the arms and hands in front or down, it’s important that you move the arms up more often. I’d say for me this is probably the biggest change and realization.
Arms are just never up if you’re not exercising, getting arrested or listening to a hip hop song that tells you to do so.
By moving your arms up you’re changing the position, stretching the front of your body and strengthening the neck muscles. Plus postures with your arms up are shown to improve confidence and mood.
6. After Work Try Some Yoga for Neck and Shoulders
After work a massage would be great, but if you’re a normal person, you probably won’t be able to go to a massage every day. I personally get really bored with massages and find they don’t work if you do them too often (not pretending and I know I’m a weirdo).
But what I like to do that helps, and what you can do every day after work, is yoga stretches. If you don’t have time, you can do yoga stretches even before work. Try a class at the gym or a youtube workout specifically for neck and shoulder pain.
Here’s a list with my favorite 7 yoga routines to help relieve neck and shoulder pain. Between just 3 and 20min I find all of these yoga “workouts” very helpful.
7. Don’t Do This
You know how after you’ve spent the entire day sitting you get into your car or the train and sit some more (probably while checking your phone all the time). Then you go home, stare at your phone some more and do another round of sitting in front of the TV.
Let’s be real with ourselves, we sit most of the time. And we’re on our phones most of the time. True some of us might go to the gym 2-3 days of the week, but most of us spent most of our free time sitting or looking at our phones, or doing both.
We need to stop.
Let’s be mindful of how we’re spending our free time and how much time we’re spending on our phones. This puts the same pressure on the neck as looking at the computer for a few hours, so don’t underestimate time spent looking at your phone.
8. Reduce Inflammation By Eating These Foods
Last but not least, eating these 5 anti-inflammatory foods regularly might help with stiff neck. These foods are anti-inflammatory and have been shown to help with stiffness in arthritis patients. Have them as tea or part of your meals.
More on inflammation:
So these are my strategies to prevent neck and shoulder pain and to relieve it. Be more aware of your posture and how long you’re sitting/looking at your phone and try to apply these tips more often.
If you can do these things daily, not all the time and not just one time, I’m sure you’ll see improvements soon. Hope these tips help you get rid and prevent neck pain 🙂