We are living in a society that’s very hard on necks. From looking down into cell phones and superlight computers, to poor sleep and work postures, our daily routines add wear and tear to a complex structure that’s already prone to losing its natural curve from aging. Any position that puts your head in an unusual position for a long period can cause neck pain and problems.
We might take better care of our necks if we thought about the three important functions it serves, including: 1) balancing your head over your body 2) allowing your head to move in different positions and 3) protecting the spinal cord and nerves that control your body’s functions.
A neck can tolerate a surprising amount of abuse, but poor habits eventually catch up with everyone. “The time to act is when you’re feeling good,” says Chetan Patel, MD, a spine surgeon at the Spine Health Institute, affiliated with Florida Hospital Medical Group.
“If we were taking care of ourselves, we’d all be in a good strengthening program for the spine,” he says. Exercise may be time-consuming, but it’s a small price to pay to maintain a body that works 24 hours a day.
Patel describes six simple ways to keep your neck healthy and care for it when you’re in pain.
• Adjust computer monitors so you look straight ahead rather than up or down.
• Become a better typist so you can avoid looking down at your hands while you type.
• Take a break every hour, walk around and gently stretch your neck.
• Make sure your pillow keeps your head in a neutral position when you sleep. A good pillow supports your head and keeps your neck from collapsing when you lay your head on it. One that’s too bulky isn’t good because it pushes the head forward. The same rules are true whether you sleep on your back or on your side. The worst position for your neck: sleeping on your stomach—although there are better and worse ways to do that, too.
• Practice good neck posture with an hourly check throughout the day—shoulders down and head balanced directly over the body. Neutral position is when your head is balanced in the center of your body. ”This is the position that allows you to transmit your weight with the least effort possible,” says Patel. “Too far forward or backward and you make your body do extra work it doesn’t have to do.”
• As soon as your neck starts to hurt, eliminate the offending problem that put you there. Rest, ice, heat and over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs (not Tylenol) are your best first-line defense. If your neck pain doesn’t subside in 48 to 72 hours, seeing a physician maybe a good idea. A short course of physical therapy and some behavioral changes may be all the help you need.
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