Take a walk around the office, and it’s not too hard to spot the people who probably have chronic neck pain or may soon be complaining about it. His head is jutting forward toward his computer screen; her body is facing one direction with her head turned to the side while she works; or maybe he’s slumped in his chair. But look closer. It might also be the mother who’s up several times a night with her infant (fragmented sleep can lower pain tolerance) or the person who’s navigating marital problems.
Neck pain at work is more common than you may think. A 2016 study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association found Americans spent $87.6 billion dollars to treat neck and back pain in 2013. (Only diabetes and heart disease topped that outlay.) Back and neck pain also drive absenteeism and, presumably, presenteeism. “If you can’t get comfortable at work or are in pain, you’re not going to be your most productive,” says Tiffany Grimm, a solutions manager on EXOS’ performance innovation team.
It may sound straightforward but addressing neck pain at work takes a comprehensive approach. “There are so many reasons why your neck might hurt,” says Graeme Lauriston, doctor of physical therapy and vice president of EXOS Physical Therapy and Sports Medicine. “It could be disc degeneration or arthritis, but many times it’s trigger points and muscle or joint restrictions from poor postural habits or even stress. You have to step back, look at the whole body, and understand the source of the problem.”
To help your employees (or yourself) move and feel better, start with these four areas to find the cause of chronic neck pain.
1. Poor posture
Neck pain at work isn’t always work station-related, but proper ergonomics are key to neck pain relief. Start by providing employees with information to adjust their computer screen, keyboard, and chair height. In addition, encourage them to take frequent movement breaks, ideally every 30 minutes. “Sitting all day is the new smoking, but standing all day isn’t always the answer,” Lauriston says.
Recommend that employees set a timer to prompt changing positions, walking around, and/or performing simple stretches that help relieve tension and improve mobility. Another simple fix: Increasing the font size on computers. The harder it is to see, the more employees’ heads jut forward, increasing compression through the upper spine and leading to pain.
2. Repetitive motion
If employees have poor posture, any repetitive motion they do — using a mouse, overhead movement, and even turning their head — will be compromised over time. It’s like going for a run in bad shoes.
“If body positioning isn’t optimal, they’re setting themselves up for overuse injuries, including carpal tunnel syndrome, elbow pain, rotator cuff tendinitis, or tension headaches,” Lauriston says.
3. Muscle imbalances
Poor pillar strength (including the hips, shoulder girdle, and torso) will contribute to many types of pain. When strong, it provides a stable base for neck movements.
“Upper crossed syndrome” is another common issue in the workplace. That’s where the chest, front shoulder, and upper trapezius muscles are overactive, and the middle back and front neck stabilizing muscles are underactive. The clue: rounded shoulders and forward head posture. “When this happens, employees are apt to get more compression through the neck joints, their neck and shoulder range of motion decreases, and they experience pain and tightness,” Lauriston explains.
Simple neck exercises like chin tucks (drawing the chin and head back — not down — as far as possible) help bring the head back in line with the shoulders and can be done anywhere. Using simple exercises like this can often provide neck pain relief. Consider recommending employees talk to a physical therapist; even better, offer an on-site physical therapist once a month as a helpful employee perk.
“Generalized stress can impact the body’s tissue tension and quality, recovery, and sleep, which in turn affects overall health, energy levels, and productivity,” Lauriston says. It also increases inflammation and turns up the volume on whatever pain an employee is already experiencing. Mindfulness training, work-life balance awareness, and tech curfews — limiting phone usage on your lunch break or after 8 p.m., for example — can help reduce feelings of stress.
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