The good news is, neck pain is rarely a sign of a crippling disease or larger problem. The bad news is, neck pain is one of the most common ailments, and one of the most common complaints people seek treatment for.
And many doctors have found that their patients seeking relief from neck pain all have this in common—they’re stressed.
While stress isn’t the direct and only cause of neck pain, it leads up to it in various ways. Stress causes people to tense up, causing a tightness in neck muscles—leading to irritability, fatigue, depressive behaviors, plus the neck pain. This can in turn cause more stress, becoming a vicious cycle.
Stress and anxiety—even if it’s purely emotional—also courses through the nerves across your neck, shoulders, and spine, causing those areas to tense and ache.
“As stress goes, up I definitely see more patients with neck pain. Every year around tax time the number of patients with neck pain increases, especially among Wall Street types here in New York,” says Robert Gotlin, director of orthopaedic and sports rehabilitation at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City.
Cindy E. Levitz, an oriental medicine expert, also sees stressed patients coming to her for neck pain relief, willing to try everything from over-the-counter relievers to physical therapy, to alternative medicine and massage, or changes of habits. Levits advises building up simple habits like how you’re sitting and getting up every 30 minutes for a stretch.
Here are some ways to better your posture and position to avoid neck pain
Many of us who work in an office might spend several hours a day slumped over in front of a computer. If this is you, set reminders at 30 minute intervals so you can stand and stretch, or go and get a drink of water (dehydration will only add to your muscle tension).
Your neck needs to move too! If you keep it static throughout the day, you might suppress blood flow in addition to keeping yourself tense. At the very least, remember to move your neck side to side, from time to time.
Do some neck stretches. Some simple stretches that move your back and shoulder muscles will help—simply hold any of these stretching positions for abut 30 seconds.
- Reach both hands behind your back, and hold one wrist with the other hand, straightening your first arm and pulling away from yourself. Then lower the side of your head to your shoulder. When you finish switch sides.
- Clasp both hands behind your head while sitting up tall. Then tuck your chin to your chest and, with your hands, pull your head the direction away from your shoulders and hold the stretch.
- Find yourself a corner and stand about 2 feet from the wall, and put both forearms on the walls on either side. Lean in gently until you feel the stretch, then hold it.
Optimize your sleeping position. The two sleeping positions best for your neck are on your side or on your back, as opposed to on your stomach (which keeps your back arched and your neck turned to the side).
To do this pain-free, use a rounded pillow to support the natural curve of your neck, plus a flatter pillow to cushion your head. Make sure your pillows aren’t too high or too stiff, which will keep your neck flexed overnight and cause you to feel sore and stiff in the morning.
If you sleep on your side, you’ll want to use a neck pillow that is higher than the one under your head, in order to keep your spine straight.
And on the emotional side, here are some tips to de-stress
Be mindful. Mindfulness related practices like meditation and journaling can help train your mind to become more aware—aware of your mood, of your thoughts and feelings, and their underlying causes. Stress is often accompanied with feelings of uncertainty and aimlessness—it can be hard to pinpoint the reason, and therefore hard to see the solution to the problem. Practicing mindfulness can help you better understand yourself so you can deal with stress in an effective and healthy manner, sometimes even avoiding stress completely.
Breathe! The “abdominal breathing technique” is easy and you can do it anywhere. Simply put your hand on your abdomen, close your mouth and touch your tongue to the top of your mouth, and breathe in through your nose—deeply and slowly. Be aware of your diaphragm and abdomen expanding—you should feel it under your hand. And then exhale (don’t hold your breath). Try to push out all of the breathe from your lungs, so this may take twice as long as you inhale. Repeat this a couple of times.
Nurture your body—by being mindful of what you put in it. Maybe de-stressing means partaking in a bit of comfort food, or having a nice, warm mug of your favorite drink. As long as it’s a useful mood-booster more than a crutch, you deserve that treat. But there are also foods with proven de-stressing benefits:
- Leafy green vegetables. Having a salad hardly sounds like comfort food, but dark leafy greens like spinach have tons of folate, which helps your body make mood-regulating neurotransmitters that keep your brain happy.
- Blueberries. These sweet little berries are high in antioxidants, which help improve your mood, memory function, and coordination. They also boost the level of a type of white blood cell that helps combat stress.
- Pistachios. These green nuts take a bit of work to get to, but maybe the act of eating them itself can be calming.
Lean on your family and friends. If you’re stressed, it helps to talk it out. Have a solid support system—it doesn’t have to be big—because when you don’t feel like having company, that’s probably when you need it the most.
When is neck pain a sign of something more serious?
That said, if your neck pain has been bothering you continually for a long time—say, six weeks or longer—and it’s actually getting worse, you should probably get it checked out.
If the neck pain is persistent and throbbing, or has developed into a serious headache or spinal pain, it’s could be a sign of something that something more serious is going on. Better to be safe and seek professional advice.